“Women Beware Women” at the National Theatre

Harriet Walter is a woman to be scared of, at least, she is in the National Theatre’s current production of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women. She plays Livia, gifted and cursed with a demonic persuasive power. Through deceit she organises an incestuous affair between her brother and her niece and engineers the rape of a newly married neighbour. Yet she does it all with a great deal of charm. She’ll manage to persuade you that she isn’t all that bad.

Her victims are Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) and Isabella (Vanessa Kirby). They transform from young, innocent women in love into killers bent on revenge. It’s a delicious change, and one the actresses clearly relish. Taking their lead from Walter, they adopt a cool, clever and cynical approach to marriage while passion boils inside them as they plot murder. As their metamorphosis occurs, Livia falls in love herself – she decides to take Bianca’s husband as a toy boy. Unfortunately for her, the transformation allows emotions to begin clouding her judgement.

And what of the men? They should have plenty of reason to beware these women, but their own arrogance and hypocrisy make them oblivious as to how they are manipulated. Richard Lintern is suitably villainous as the Duke who abducts Bianca, and Raymond Courtauld genuinely creepy as the uncle who loves Isabella. If Samuel Barnett seems slightly miscast as the man who manages to get Bianca to elope, he makes a good show of playing the doting husband and gets his fair share of laughs.

Focusing on the melodrama as a strategy for getting humour out of a revenge tragedy might seem like a risk. Making characters less rounded than they are written only works if you have a strong cast. Fortunately, director Marianne Elliott is working with fine actors and the payoff is a great deal of fun. Elliott has great skill as a storyteller and can cut through complicated plots to provide refreshing clarity. She is also visionary when it comes to staging and here the production takes off.

Designer Lez Brotherston’s set is magnificent. A decadent mixture of art deco glamour and baroque drama, it manages to reflect the grand and intimate, rich and poor, while evoking the games and perils of seduction. And it works in more than one way. Making the most of the Olivier’s revolving stage, the final scene of murderous mayhem is perfectly choreographed and truly thrilling.

Until July 4 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 29 April 2010 for The London Magazine

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