"Ugliness demeans us all", is the attention-grabbing caption on posters for Nip/Tuck, the television series about plastic surgery.
"Ugliness demeans us all", is the attention-grabbing caption on posters for Nip/Tuck, the television series about plastic surgery. But one of the salutary virtues of The Changeling - Middleton and Rowley's brilliant Jacobean tragedy, revived in a production of great power and persuasion by Andrew Hilton's Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company in Bristol - is how it demonstrates that a world in which everyone was beautiful would be a world inadequate for human desire in all its compelling perversity. For ugliness has ways of making itself attractive, to both benign and malign effect. If it didn't exist, we would have to invent it.
We see that truth through the tragic journey of Beatrice-Joanna, who is played with just the right spoilt glamour and nerviness by Saskia Portway. This grandee's daughter needs to get rid of her fiancé, who has been secretly ousted from her affections by the dishy Alsemero (Rupert Ward-Lewis). So she resorts to hiring the aid of a courtier, De Flores, whose seething admiration for her is vividly captured by Matthew Thomas. He has a facial disfigurement, but the heroine's unconcealed revulsion at that is, in fact, suppressed attraction, for she sees the depraved side of herself reflected in him, and it is both fearful and exciting.
In ways that darkly satirise the notion that looks are a reflection of the soul, beauty and the beast are gradually revealed as kinky kindred spirits. De Flores won't accept money as payment for the murder. His price is her virginity. It's arguable that if this story were transplanted to the present day and Beatrice-Joanna were to pay for the killer to have cosmetic surgery before she paid his sexual forfeit, she would succumb far less willingly to the new, improved version of the man.
Hilton's production has a terrific purity of focus and an admirable ability to make "horror" genuinely horrific. It allows the anaesthetic of familiarity with gruesome theatrical convention to wear off, so that, for example, when De Flores decides to sever one of the dead man's fingers to present (as a sexually suggestive token) to the heroine, he is shown struggling realistically with recalcitrant bone and gristle.
Staged in the round, with eavesdroppers on the action emerging unnervingly from the dark spaces behind the seating, it is full of touches that ensure that we do not confuse this tragedy with mere melodrama. Asides, therefore, are not delivered stagily to the audience but mostly by creating an effect of suspended time that permits the speaker to look directly into the eyes of the character who is being talked about.
Diagonally opposite each other are two prison gates, serving to accommodate the subplot, set in a lunatic asylum presided over here by Chris Donnelly's subversively funny keeper Lollio. Aping the main action in its deployment of blackmail, rewards for service rendered and women forced to choose between love and duty, this strand is robustly integrated, and the production pulls off a startling coup at the end when those same gates that have shut people out clang together to lock everyone - cast and audience - into the world-as-hellish-madhouse.
In another psychologically appropriate feature, Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores die straining to gaze at each other - her official compunction undercut by a defiant fascination with a man who has become her partner in more than crime. The Changeling, along with other examples of this company's fine work, comes to the Barbican later in the year, and is highly recommended.
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