By: Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Directed by: Stephen Unwin
Company: English Touring Theatre
Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre
Date: Thursday 1st November 2007
We attended a pre-show talk by Stephen Unwin, which gave me a very clear picture of what he sees in the play and why he was interested in doing it. I was also able to clarify the plot in my mind – although I’ve seen this one a couple of times before, I tend to get this one, The Duchess Of Malfi, and Venice Preserv’d confused with each other (it’s not difficult, honest).
With the benefit of this chat in mind, I still have to say that this is undoubtedly the best production I’ve seen of this play. It was clear to me who all the characters were, what they were about, and what was going on, something of a miracle where Jacobean drama is concerned. Although I don’t find the language nearly as good as Shakespeare’s (an inevitable comparison), the plot was good, and there was a lot of humour, which isn’t always on show. But the biggest plus was that, being a touring production, they couldn’t afford a whole asylum full of lunatics, so we were spared the gruesome spectacle of the gibbering, drooling wretches who so often claim the stage in major productions of this play, doing their best to make the audience feel entirely uncomfortable at the thought of staying past the interval. It was a godsend to have only the two false lunatics for the bulk of the performance, with the other actors dumbing down for the loony tunes group dance.
The set was a good mix of gothic castle and Victorian institution. This allowed for some very quick shifts between locations, which speeded everything up. The tragedy part, with Beatrice-Joanna showing Lady Macbeth a clean pair of heels, contrasted nicely with the care home for the mentally challenged, run by the should-be-cuckolded Albius and his servant Lollio. Although they never diminished the horrors of what was going on in these places, Lollio (David Cardy) in particular made the most of his part, bringing out much more of the humour than I’ve seen before.
All the performances were very good, but a special mention must go to Adrian (we remember the porter) Schiller, who made Deflores believable and partly sympathetic, while still being capable of butchering half the countryside to get the woman he wants. Another reminder – this is the play where Alsermo has a bottle of liquid with which he can test whether or not a woman is a virgin, involving gaping, yawning, and laughing. Why he feels he needs this stuff, and why he leaves his closet unlocked at precisely the wrong time, is something we’ll just have to ask the dramatist. Anyway, this was a great evening, and I’ll certainly look out for Stephen’s other work, though not necessarily for Middleton’s.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me