Women Beware Women, National Theatre, London

Michael Coveney
Thursday 29 April 2010 00:00
Comments

"The commodification of women" is a vile phrase often bandied about in discussions of Thomas Middleton's filthy 1621 Jacobean tragedy, one of the greatest plays of the period. Women are sold, betrayed, raped and insulted but still come out, and come off, on top. Sex and death, mate, they love it. You don't have to dress this rarely seen lust-fest in modern garb to make its feminist points, but Marianne Elliott's magnificent and disturbing National Theatre revival does benefit from updating the Italian Renaissance to a period mishmash of New Look couture, dead cool jazz and punk primitivism.

"The commodification of women" is a vile phrase often bandied about in discussions of Thomas Middleton's filthy 1621 Jacobean tragedy, one of the greatest plays of the period. Women are sold, betrayed, raped and insulted but still come out, and come off, on top. Sex and death, mate, they love it. You don't have to dress this rarely seen lust-fest in modern garb to make its feminist points, but Marianne Elliott's magnificent and disturbing National Theatre revival does benefit from updating the Italian Renaissance to a period mishmash of New Look couture, dead cool jazz and punk primitivism.

There's no chance, for instance, of the obscene courtship of a prospective fiancée (who's already sleeping with her uncle) by a cockerel-coiffed, stupidly rich booby, being mistaken for a jolly Jacobean jape. Its talk of "shittlecock" and "stool ball" – the new sexual pastimes – is prologue to peeping up skirts to establish if the girl's "wild and hairy underneath".

That last phrase is not Middleton's, but there's nothing comparable in Shakespeare, where sexual innuendo mostly remains just that. Middleton's supple verse uncoils into explicit metaphor and, in the famous chess scene, a running commentary of captured castles and pawns (porns?) as a newlywed innocent, Bianca, is ravished and raped on the balcony.

The wealthy widow Livia, played in the very likeness of the Duchess of Windsor by an elegantly acerbic Harriet Walter, is conducting "the game" at the board with the girl's mother-in-law (Tilly Tremayne) while the Olivier stage revolves slowly, the balcony yields to an ominous back stairway, and Richard Lintern's dastardly duke shows Bianca his monument.

It's not just that crude: Bianca, played with real guile and gusto by Lauren O'Neil, has been incarcerated by her travelling husband Leantio (Samuel Barnett), so she's ripe for adventure; and she's inducted into the danger zone by the creepy Guardiano (Andrew Woodall) with a tour of erotic paintings and statuary, here projected onto the set while composer Olly Fox's live jazz combo (with vocalist) sets the blue mood.

No one acquits himself with honour. Even the Cardinal (Chu Omambala), who interrupts the wedding with a tirade against lust, is fully undeserving of his last-man-left-standing status in the climactic masque, a bloodbath that makes the last scene of Hamlet look like a nursery game.

Even a great Glasgow Citizens production 15 years ago fudged this last act, and though Elliott retains most of it, she cuts the ceremonial parody of Hymen, Ganymede and Juno, and the arrow-firing Cupids (replaced by black-winged Myrmidons), and uses an accelerating revolve to convey the carnage. It's a seamless, if slightly blurred, atmospheric extension of the whole show, with Walter priming a body double, Barnett returning as a ghost, the incestuous Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) expiring in a balletic gang bang (instead of the stipulated shower of burning gold) and her love-struck uncle (Raymond Coulthard) impaling himself on a convenient dagger. It's all a wonderful advert for the idea of getting bad behaviour out of our lives and onto the stage where it belongs: let's hear it for perversion by proxy.

To 4 July (020 7452 3000 ; Nationaltheatre.org.uk)

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