The Changeling, Barbican, London
Lost in the labyrinth
Sunday 21 May 2006
The opening scenes are riveting too. All the players in this lust-ravaged and murderous Jacobean tragedy sit muttering over their rosaries, in understated modern dress on scattered plastic chairs. They are, perhaps, already lost souls about to replay their past. Tom Hiddleston's golden-curled Alsemero looks up and begins, "'Twas in the temple where I first beheld her", and we're instantly in the church where his eyes meet those of Olivia Williams's shyly smiling Beatrice. They fall head-over-heels in love, like Romeo and Juliet, only she rashly determines to have to her prearranged fiancé killed and then spirals downwards, entangled in a poisoned love-knot with her father's obsessed manservant, De Flores (Will Keen), who has done the dirty for her.
Declan Donnellan's direction, with his trademark intelligent simplicity, intensifies the sense of doom and psychologically complicated relationships by having all the characters as silent presences encircling Alsemero and Beatrice's first meeting. The verse-speaking is absolutely lucid in meaning and sounds amazingly modern. The comic subplot, set in an asylum, is also intercut with pointed punchy speed, with strip lights snapping on and everyone instantly transforming into gibbering lunatics.
However, the evening loses it way somewhat after this. The play itself is patchy, with De Flores's glittering lines alongside dismally unfunny madmen. The production still needs to gestate as well, with some concepts not fully seen through and several young actors with a long way to go. Williams is also disappointingly lame when letting herself go to the devil. The way she keeps pressing herself up against a thigh-illuminating window makes the play look cheap and voyeuristically seedy (which maybe it is, as well as being astute on stalking and abuse). Still, her repressed neurotic manner earlier on has menace and Keen is terrific - never the grotesque villain but dryly funny and unflinchingly, criminally devoted.
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