The Changeling, Southwark Playhouse, London

 

The repulsive has its perverse, magnetic attractions. We can lust for what we defensively loathe. This is the message that throbs through The Changeling, the erotically charged and psychologically searching 1622 tragedy by Middleton and Rowley. Performed under the rumbling railway arches of Southwark Playhouse, Michael Oakley's production is itself a perverse affair – misconceived, in certain respects, and yet capable of exerting a powerful fascination.

This revival ditches the madhouse sub-plot and deposits the main action in the gated mansion of a modern financier. It's a fittingly kinky stroke to turn the disfigured, voyeuristic villain De Flores into a security guard who can use his bank of CCTV monitors to spy on Beatrice-Joanna, daughter of the house and the object of his steamy infatuation. Flouncing around in a lacy black cocktail dress, Fiona Hampton radiates a haughty, outsize sense of entitlement as this spoilt heiress who soon learns that she can't have everything when, in return for bumping off her inconvenient fiancé, De Flores demands her virginity.

The excellent David Caves invests this facially blemished malcontent with a muscular, vulpine allure, his soft Northern-Irish snarl bringing out all the sarcastic irreverence and insidious threat in De Flores' brilliant response to her self-righteous demurral: "A woman dipped in blood and talk of modesty?" Ms Hampton could afford to suggest more strongly that, from the outset, Beatrice-Joanna's strenuous disdain is a token of repressed desire and that in the fatal factotum she sees her own latent depravity fearfully and arousingly reflected. But the tense build-up to rough congress amongst the filing cabinets is staged with a keen sense that the heroine is hoist by her own collusive petard – as when she winds up lasciviously trapped by the belt of her red evening gown in the office chair that she had sent skidding on its castors against him.

The surveillance dimension is disappointingly under-explored and the play loses echoic density through the sacrifice of the distorted-mirror sub-plot. The biggest mistake, though, is playing the asides as pre-recorded voice-overs. As Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores size each other up, The Changeling makes heavy, brilliantly expressive use of a convention which Oakley evidently finds embarrassingly artificial. But asides are oblique confidences that can be achieved by actors swiftly and subtly with the merest tilt of the head. Paradoxically, this lean, striking production never feels stagier than when succumbing to its ill-advised pseudo-cinematic pretensions.

To 26 November (020 7407 0234)

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