Thomas Middleton's dramas return to the stage

Biting satires, bawdy comedies and the greatest Jacobean tragedy outside Shakespeare... Paul Taylor relishes a run of dramas by Thomas Middleton
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Why aren't the plays of Thomas Middleton a proud staple of the repertoire? Consider his credentials. With The Changeling, he created the finest Jacobean tragedy outside Shakespeare. He also penned the smash hit of the period. A brilliant allegorical satire attacking the Catholic Church and the peace negotiations between England and Spain, A Game at Chess packed out the Globe for an unprecedented nine-day run in August 1624 before the Privy Council closed the theatre and issued a warrant for the author's arrest.

Where other Jacobean dramatists had gaps in their armoury, Middleton produced striking work in all the available theatrical genres. He was a leading exponent of the new form of "city comedy", transplanting wily intrigue-plots from Roman drama to a racy, slangy, pungently specific contemporary London scene.

Shakespeare seems to have been disinclined to head down this route. Indeed, Timon of Athens - in some respects, the most Middletonian of Shakespeare's works, with its satiric attack on materialism and flattery - has been identified by modern scholarship as a collaboration between the two. Middleton provided the acridly comic third act scenes in which the fair-weather friends and creditors of the profligately generous Timon reject his appeals for help with elaborately self-serving excuses. So it's no surprise that, after Shakespeare's death, it was to Middleton that the King's Men turned when they wanted revisions.

What is intriguing is that two of the older dramatist's greatest plays - Macbeth and Measure for Measure - survive only in Folio texts that show signs of Middletonian adaptation. There's speculation that the peculiarly terse, elliptical style of Macbeth may be partly due to Middleton's cutting.

Given his glittering CV, it's a puzzle why this prolific playwright is not more regularly revived. Happily, an impromptu mini-festival of Middleton is now making amends. Earlier this year, there was the London transfer of the RSC's A New Way to Please You, a jolting tragicomedy about euthanasia, the relationship between youth and age, and the abuse of prerogative by a meddling ruler who uses his subjects as the guinea pigs in a social experiment.

This week, in Stratford, the RSC unveiled Laurence Boswell's revival of Women Beware Women, a darkly ironic tragedy of the corruption of innocence in a glamorous Italian court. Next month, in a speeded-up adaptation by Meredith Oakes, Southwark Playhouse stages The Revenger's Tragedy, an irreverent response to Hamlet, which bristles with sick Tarantino-esque jokes and homes in on a hero, Vindice, who becomes enveloped in the degeneracy he had set out to purge. And in May, Declan Donnellan and Cheek By Jowl bring to the Barbican their production of The Changeling, Middleton's masterpiece co-written with William Rowley.

"In Women Beware Women, Middleton is obsessed with economics and how economic power relates to love," Boswell says. "It's a much more jaundiced, unromantic view of love than you get, in general, in Shakespeare. There's no sense that it's some expression of profound harmony in the universe. It's a kind of affliction of the mind, powered by lust, which is going to send people to hell."

Middleton is as acute about the power of repressed desire as he is about the blurring of class boundaries, Boswell notes. You see this, he argues, in the characterisation of Livia (played in the new production by Penelope Wilton), a 39-year-old widow. "She started off middle class, but we reckon that she married money twice and with the second husband gained the status to hang around the court as a sort of posh bawd or madam, arranging sophisticated liaisons." She organises the two illicit and ultimately disastrous relationships that the tragedy counterpoints, including an incestuous affair between her brother and her niece.

Is this Jacobean tragedy at its most gratuitously kinky? "No, it's because Livia is herself very wound up in an unconscious, incestuous attachment to her brother that she does it. She kind of gets off on the niece getting off with him."

Suppressed attraction quivers in the voluble revulsion of Beatrice-Joanna for the disfigured servant De Flores in The Changeling. She insults him out of resentment that she finds him magnetic. "It's interesting that no one apart from those two makes an issue of his ugliness," replies Donnellan, suggesting that this shared, perhaps distorted perception is another mark of their fatal mutual fascination. With its heroine sexually blackmailed by the man she's hired to kill her fiancé, The Changeling, as Donnellan points out, "looks forward to film noir". It also looks back to Macbeth. In both tragedies, a terrible murder redefines its perpetrators. There's almost erotic anticipation of the crime beforehand, and later, on the part of the woman, a desperate attempt to convince herself that life can go on unchanged. It's a bit late for that, as De Flores drily observes: "A woman dipp'd in blood, and talk of modesty?" But where murder drives the couple apart in Macbeth, in The Changeling it unites them in a corrupt, collusive and adulterous intimacy.

The English run will overlap with Donnellan's touring Russian version of Twelfth Night; an imaginative pairing as both feature a charged relationship between a lady and servant and a preoccupation with madness.

It's nearly 20 years since the National Theatre last tackled this great tragedy, and 30 since Women Beware Women was revived by the RSC. And, when not being studiedly ignored, Middleton tends to be ineptly treated (there have been a couple of poorly directed city comedies at the Globe and a disastrous touring account of one by the Almeida). Let's hope this run of dramas stirs directors to delve into the canon of a dramatist who, in terms of range and penetration, could be considered Shakespeare's closest Jacobean rival.

'Women Beware Women', Swan Theatre, Stratford (0870 609 1110), to 1 April; 'The Revenger's Tragedy', Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 (0870 060 1761), 7 to 25 March; 'The Changeling', Barbican, London EC2 (0845 120 7550), 11 May to 10 June