A Woman Killed with Kindness, National Theatre: Lyttelton, London

Reviewed,Paul Taylor
Thursday 21 July 2011 00:00 BST

The two chief female characters find themselves manhandled like pieces of furniture during the many stylised interludes where servants dart about shifting the scene in Katie Mitchell's striking, calculatedly provocative revival of A Woman Killed with Kindness. The director has relocated Thomas Heywood's domestic tragedy, written in 1603, to 1919 and she has underlined the connections between plot and subplot by juxtaposing the two households in a bravura split-stage effect (the superb design is by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer) thus allowing for suggestive counterpoint and concurrent action.

A mouldering Georgian mansion sits cheek by jowl with a spruce Arts-and-Crafts manor house. In the former, the lonely, beleaguered Susan (excellent Sandy McDade) watches while the ancestral home is stripped bare after a murderous quarrel lands her beloved brother, Sir Charles (a boorish Leo Bill), in jail. She's then used as a sexual pawn in the effort to pay off his creditor. In the main plot, Liz White's enigmatic Anne Frankford embarks on an affair with Wendoll, the man her husband (Paul Ready) has installed as his boon companion. On being banished from home and children, she starves herself to death in remorse.

The play would like you to think that both women are the beneficiaries of kindness. Having fallen in love, the creditor proposes genuine marriage to Susan, when her brother tries to prostitute her to him, brutally decked out in a bridal dress. Spared the fate of being killed outright, Anne is free to take Christian penitence to its limits in another of her husband's properties. Mitchell seems out to undermine both interpretations in a production where the women's status as chattels is emphasised in those scurrying interludes.

Instead of succumbing to her "happy" ending, McDade's Susan is shown on a loop, reiterating the same gesture of recoil from her intended's embrace. Isolated in a world of masculine self-regard, both women often move in slow-motion through their lives and find release in playing the piano. And here, in the final deathbed scene, it is Susan rather than Frankford who intones Anne's proposed epitaph: "Here lies she whom her husband's kindness kill'd", turning it into an unambivalently scathing rebuke.

In rep to 11 Sept (020 7452 3000)

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