THEATRE / When men of snow have feet of clay: Paul Taylor reviews John Marston's The Dutch Courtesan at the Orange Tree in Richmond

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The Independent Culture
The aptly named Malheureux in Marston's The Dutch Courtesan (1603-5) is cut from the same puritanical black cloth as Angelo in Measure for Measure. In dramatic terms, though, he is a muted version of the type. A self-proclaimed 'man of snow', he too thaws out and comes to the boil when confronted by the right wrong woman. But, instead of the profound irony whereby Angelo falls from his pedestal not for a whore but for a novice nun, whose moral absolutism mirrors his own, Marston has Malheureux getting the hots for Franceschina, the Dutch courtesan and about-to-be-discarded mistress of his great friend, Freevill. This illustrates an altogether more standard irony: he had only gone to view her in the sniffily righteous belief that 'the sight of vice augments the hate of sin'. What it augments, of course, is located in Malheureux's trousers rather than his soul.

Sam Walters' in-the-round staging at the Orange Tree is an enjoyable, mostly well-acted affair. It has none of the imaginative daring, though, of the revival at the Latchmere, a couple of years back, of the same dramatist's Malcontent. By using women in male roles and vice versa, that production tried to reproduce some of the peculiar sense of dislocation Jacobean audiences probably felt when these very 'adult' plays were performed by a company of boy actors. No cross-dressing or misuse of minors here, though there is perhaps too heartily appreciative a treatment of the play's bawdy (you wonder whether the Jacobeans were always as doubled-up as today's actors are required to be at every flicker of obscure filth).

Timothy Watson is very fine as the sophistical Freevill, his cat- that-got-the-cream smile curdling to just the right degree when the character dons a disguise to observe his ex-mistress and friend, and to teach Geoffrey Church's excellently dazed and unmanned Malheureux a lesson. Whether Freevill, with his unlovely view of women and far from spotless past, has any right to be doling out moral instruction is a question that's left uneasily begging. His intrigues are farcically counterpointed in the subplot, in which David Timson's beaming knave Cocledemoy repeatedly outwits the persecuted vintner Mulligrub (Frank Moorey moving from blockhead's chagrin to hothead's dementia in amusing stages).

Crispinella and Tysefew, a sub- Beatrice and Benedick pair (attractively embodied by Caroline Gruber and Brian Hickey), represent, in their bantering, realistic mutual respect, a preferable way of achieving a relationship to either Freevill's idolisation of Beatrice (Janine Wood) or his execration of his Dutch former mistress (Amanda Royle). The play turns this figure into a snarlingly vindictive scorned woman, which conveniently blurs the issue of whether prostitutes in her position deserve to be high-handedly discarded by their reformed admirers.

Until 28 November (Box office: 081-940 0141).