Women Beware Women, Swan Theatre, Stratford

Punks and poison - it's so 17th-century
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The Independent Culture

The masque, in fact, ends in a punitive rash of murders as the courtiers acting it out engineer dastardly ends for one another - spikes under trapdoors, cupids with poisoned darts and lethal puffs of smoke. It's always hard not to snigger at the melodramatic pile-up of corpses in tragedies of this period, but Middleton positively lets you to laugh. Like a darkly ironic version of Duke Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Pigott-Smith consults his programme in bemusement, remarking that the entertainment seems to be diverging from the plot synopsis. At the same time, serious grief is never far away. Hayley Atwell's Bianca is only moments from a desperate, searing death. Also making his RSC debut, as Bianca's first husband Leantio, Elliot Cowan moves strikingly from newly-wed buoyancy to bereft pain. Middleton's sympathies lay palpably with that non-aristocratic, wounded young man, and Cowan articulates his thoughts in verse with clear intelligence.

Boswell's production, like the play, does have its weak links. Designer Richard Hudson isn't at his impressive best here. The costumes, combining ruffs and slashed doublets with punky zips and safety pins, draw attention to themselves. The use of cheap shimmering fabrics - most notably a wedding dress with Cellophane sleeves - looks a bit poor as well, though the choice is surely deliberate, underlining that the nobility and the social climbers around them are morally shoddy.

The acting isn't uniformly fine-tuned. Bruce Mackinnon is sorely unfunny as the rich twit engaged to the play's other young woman, Emma Cunniffe's Isabella, who passionately liaises with her own uncle, when craftily misled by the latter's sibling, Wilton's Livia.

The great strength of this production is that it doesn't steep Middleton's Italy in an obviously malign atmosphere of intrigue, and potentially 2-D characters blossom into lovable real people. Susan Engel and Julian Curry are touchingly sweet and well as foolish old parents, and Wilton is a witty widow with an independent spirit - like Beatrice from Much Ado, 30 years on - before she turns shockingly into an upmarket bawd. The hardening of the young women, when forced into affairs, is also the more disturbing for its suddenness, with a lurking vein of proto-feminism countering the dramatist's own title.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

Booking to 1 April, 0870 609 1110

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