Women Beware Women, NT Olivier, London<br/>Ruined, Almeida, London<br/>Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death, Minerva, Chichester

The corpses pile up in the National Theatre's 1950s take on revenge tragedy, but Middleton's text is the real victim
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The Independent Culture

Harriet Walter looks like a Dior-clad witch in the Jacobean revenge dramaWomen Beware Women.

Thomas Middleton's play was originally set in Renaissance Florence, inspired by the sexual machinations of the Medici dynasty. In director Marianne Elliott's NT production, the action is translated to somewhere nearer Kensington in the 1950s. So Middleton's darkly comical-going-on-punitive vision of affluence and corruption chimes with more modern High Society sleaze, as exposed by the Profumo Affair and subsequent scandals.

In a black silk evening dress, Walter's Livia is playing the impeccable hostess in her palatial home. But there is a hatchet-jawed callousness beneath the flashing smile as she sips on her Martini and ensnares naive guests.

Lauren O'Neil's Bianca – an unsuspecting pretty blonde neighbour, newly wed to a lowly clerk – is ushered upstairs, supposedly to be shown Livia's art collection, only to fall into the clutches of a rapacious duke who's lying in wait. No fairy godmother, Livia acts as procuress for her own incestuously inclined brother, Hippolito, as well. Their niece, Isabella, is beguiled into having a clandestine affair with him even as she's being betrothed – by her father – to a rich, uncouth fool. Everyone is dragged down by mercenary decadence.

Elliott's staging is often spectacular. Lez Brotherston's huge revolving set is all gleaming marble and cut-glass chandeliers on one side (seductive lighting by Neil Austin). In sharp contrast, the backstairs world, where niceties are cast aside, is rough and shabby. It's like the rear side of theatrical flats, with rusty scaffolding propping up the facade of civilisation. The climactic masque, when the Duke's wedding party turns into a bloodbath of reprisals, becomes an epic danse macabre, accompanied by sultry jazz and choreographed by Arthur Pita. Skull-faced devils swarm over Livia's grand, slow-revolving staircases.

Alas, this doesn't stop the melodramatic pile-up of corpses appear to be ridiculous and bewildering – the text has been cut. Some of Elliott's cast prove disappointing too. Walter is on droll top form, and Harry Melling's mock-klutzy jiving as Isabella's fiancé is hilarious: two left feet attached to a jerking pelvis. As for the verse-speaking, Middleton's extended metaphors and double meanings are crystal clear.

Yet many characters still come over as psychologically sketchy. O'Neil does her best, but struggles with Bianca's switch from outrage to acceptance of the Duke. As her spouse, Samuel Barnett conveys wounded sorrow more convincingly than imprisoning possessiveness. And Raymond Coulthard's Hippolito is merely a handsome bore. Ultimately, there's no sense of tragic loss amid the debris.

In Ruined, the US playwright Lynn Nottage – like Middleton – focuses on the sexual degrading of women. However, this excellent new Pulitzer-winning play, staged by Indhu Rubasingham, is more like Mother Courage in the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Inside her corrugated-iron shack, on the edge of a steamy and squawking jungle, Jenny Jules's Mama Nadi rules the roost. She's a hard-bitten businesswoman doggedly running a drinking den and brothel in a guerrilla-war zone. Employing a clutch of atrocity-fleeing young women, she is exploiting them for all they're worth. Yet she is, equally, a life-saver.

Ruined brings home the shocking realities of existence in the Congo – with brutalised swaggering soldiers and a sense of impending horrors – yet steers away from the expected, violent climax. Instead, what you get is a richly detailed microcosm, a humorous, hopeful portrait of near-destitute people moving, undefeated, toward healing and tenderness.

Rubasingham's production is instantly absorbing, with an onstage band, vibrant partying, and superb ensemble acting: from the wily Jules; Pippa Bennett-Warner as the prim, traumatised, teenager, Sophie; Kehinde Fadipe as the raunchy lap dancer, Josephine; and Lucian Msamati as Christian, the exasperated pot-bellied hustler with a soft spot for Nadi.

Hopelessly unengaging by comparison, Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death is a revival of Edward Bond's biodrama from 1974, which portrays Shakespeare in old age as a guilty bourgeois capitalist. Directed by Angus Jackson, Patrick Stewart appears to be treading water, exuding much dome-headed dignity but little more than mild melancholy as the retired Bard. The man is supposed to be suicidally depressed, stuck back at his grand house in Stratford with a neurotic wife (shrieking offstage), and sour daughter, Catherine Cusack's Judith, snapping at his heels. The expressionless Stewart is further plagued by visits from a jealous, blathering Ben Jonson (Richard McCabe) and a profiteering burgher (Jason Watkins) who furtively encourages the propertied playwright to support the enclosure of common land. After the merciless hanging of a destitute lass caught whoring in his grounds, Shakespeare despairs at mankind's mean-spiritedness and his own shortcomings as an artistic soul – and downs an overdose.

Sporadically, the Bard's ruminations glint with vivid poetic images, recalling the sighing flight of a swan or a baited bear's feet slithering in dogs' brains. Most of the time, though, Bingo is so dull that a night ploughing through Das Kapital might be more fun.

'Women Beware Women' (020-7452 3000) to 8 Jun; 'Ruined' (020-7359 4404) to 5 Jun; 'Bingo' (01243-781312) to 22 May

Next Week:

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