Women Beware Women

Thomas Middleton’s play, first performed in the 1620s and published in 1657, is an archetypal Jacobean tragedy, with a complex plot and plenty of death. This RADA production of Women Beware Women, directed by Philip Franks and set in a mid-twentieth-century world, was a treat: excellently performed, doing full justice to Middleton’s language and giving his characters the complexity they deserve.


The White Devil

I’m pretty familiar with John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, but my knowledge of his other major play The White Devil is much more limited. I was less than enamoured with the RSC’s production of a few years back, but luckily this production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse hits all the right spots.

The convoluted plot begins with the love affair between Brachiano and Vittoria, who are both married to other people. Its pretty hard to follow, but director Annie Ryan does her best with the material and makes it as clear as it probably can be. My favourite characters include Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother, who wins the audience on side with his wry asides.

The costumes are beautiful, giving the production a Victorian Gothic/steampunk flavour. It got me wondering whether the Gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might not have its roots in Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Another striking thing about the production is its complex use of candlelight to create atmosphere and change the mood of the scene. This has always been the case with the Playhouse, but it seems even more apparent here. The cast tackle the complex language well, bringing clarity to a difficult work.

While not up to the standards of The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil is an important Jacobean play, and I can’t imagine it getting a better production than it has got here.


Ben Jonson’s Volpone (Italian for “sly fox”) dates from 1606, a wry comedy about corruption and greed. It is being performed in the Swan at Stratford as part of the Venetian season: the title character is a childless Venetian nobleman who feigns illness in order to dupe his fellows; by convincing Voltore, Corbaccio, and Corvino that they have each been made his heir, he tricks them into showering him with gifts and money.

Trevor Nunn’s production updates the action to the modern day: Volpone lies in a hospital bed, while an electronic banner overhead displays, alternately, his medical details and up-to-date stock prices (clever set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis. He disguises himself as a sick man, convincing his neighbours of his illness in an almost farcical manner. As the title character, Henry Goodman is simply superb, radiating charismatic wickedness with such glee that you almost want him to succeed in his ruse. In the scene where Volpone disguises himself as a medicine seller, his patter is perfect, worth the ticket price alone. He can be chilling, too, as in the scene in which he attempts to commit rape, which is particularly disturbing.

Goodman is ably supported by a strong ensemble cast. Orion Lee is an actor new to me, but I was impressed by his portrayal of Volpone’s devious and menacing servant Mosca. Miles Richardson, Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly were also convincing as Voltore, Corbaccio and Corvino, the three men Volpone attempts to trick.

Modern textual updates by Ranjit Bolt keep the piece relevant, though even without them it would surely still work, full of sharp wit and clever humour. Nunn’s productions can be long and ponderous, but that is not the case here: the time flies by. I would be interested to see a more traditional version of this play, but the twenty-first century update certainly works well.


Love’s Sacrifice

Love’s Sacrifice is a Jacobean play by John Ford, dating from around 1633, and currently playing at the Swan Theatre in Stratford.  It is one of Ford’s three surviving solo tragedies, the others being The Broken Heart and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore – both of which I’ve seen at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse during the past year, so I feel a certain sense of satisfaction at having completed the “trilogy”.

The plot centres around the beautiful Bianca (Catrin Stewart), newly married to the Duke of Pavia (Matthew Needham) and increasingly attracted to his friend Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) who has fallen in love with her. The Duke’s jealous sister Fiormonda (Beth Cordingly), who is herself in love with Fernando, manipulates her brother, planting suspicion in his mind.

I wouldn’t describe John Ford as my favourite playwright, and this play isn’t his best: it’s rarely performed for a reason, and has a convoluted plot which is hard going at times. Yet there are strong moments in Matthew Dunster’s production – when the illicit couple first meet privately they decide not to consummate their affair, in a powerful scene – and good performances from the cast.

In my experience, Ford plays tend to have a mixed first half, with a few laughs to lighten the bleakness, and an unreservedly dark second half. This is certainly true of Love’s Sacrifice: the almost comedic subplot concerning a rake who has impregnated, and promised marriage to, three women at the same time turns to tragedy after the interval in a scene that anticipates the inevitable bloodbath of the conclusion. If you’re familiar with Jacobean revenge tragedy, there are no real surprises here: but this production is strong enough for it to be worth seeing anyway.


A Mad World My Masters

Updating Shakespeare’s contemporaries is a tricky business. Sometimes it fails – as in the RSC’s recent version of The White Devil, a classic by John Webster. However, in this raucous version of A Mad World My Masters, an early Jacobean play by Thomas Middleton, the updated 1950s Soho setting courtesy of Sean Foley works wonderfully, keeping the spirit of the original work while capturing the atmosphere of half a century ago.

This RSC joint production with English Touring Theatre comes to the Barbican as part of a national tour, a couple of years after it premiered in Stratford. I was sorry to see that the theatre was relatively quiet, particularly as this would be a perfect play to introduce Jacobean theatre to teenagers, who might be under the impression that old plays are stuffy and boring.

The plot centres on the adventures of Dick Follywit who is trying to get hold of his uncle’s fortune. This proves an excuse to show us disguises, cross-dressing, a gleefully over-the-top seduction scene and various forms of trickery, culminating in a final scene fancy-dress party which sees the cast clad, rather wonderfully, in Jacobean garb. Characters rejoice in subtle and not-so-subtle names like Sir Bounteous Deersucker and Mr Littledick. I have never heard so much innuendo in any play, old or new.

The majority of the text is Middleton’s, which I was grateful for: I don’t believe in updating language for the sake of it, preferring that the staging and acting of a play should be responsible for ensuring its clarity. However, there are several well-chosen modern interjections, most notably a reference to the “angry young men” of the Royal Court Theatre in the 1950s. These sit easily alongside the original language.

Atmospheric musical interludes, daft physical comedy and an anarchic atmosphere ensured that, for me, this play was a great success. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I found it fresh and funny.

The Broken Heart

Marking the end of the 2014-15 winter season in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, John Ford’s The Broken Heart is a tragedy set in ancient Sparta following Penthea and Orgilus, a loving couple who are made to part by Penthea’s brother, who then forces her to marry a jealous old man. Orgilus disguises himself as a scholar, watches, waits, and takes revenge.

I didn’t really research the play before I saw it and this proved to be a mistake, as I found myself rather confused during the performance. I think this is a play that would repay reading and closer study. However, I managed to gather the gist of the story, and enjoyed the performances, particularly those of Owen Teale as the almost comically horrid Bassanes and Brian Ferguson as the understandably vengeful Orgilus. As usual, the revenge tragedy worked very well in the confines of the candlelit playhouse.

I didn’t find this play as gripping as The Duchess of Malfi or as funny as The Knight of the Burning Pestle, the previous plays of the era I have seen here. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile watch for fans of revenge tragedy.

The Changeling

I’ve already seen one production of Middleton and Rowley’s 1622 tragedy The Changeling, but that was a cut-down modern version at the Young Vic. You can’t get any more traditional than the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: here, Dominic Dromgoole has restored the piece to its appropriate setting: an intimate space, atmospherically lit by candles.

The wildly improbable plot sees Beatrice-Joanna ordered to marry a man chosen by her father, rather than her true love, Alsemero. In despair she asks for help from a servant she despises – De Flores – who carries out her murderous orders but demands sexual favours in return. One complication piles upon another until, as is inevitable in revenge tragedy, most of the characters lie dead upon the stage. In the meantime, a subplot based in the local lunatic asylum echoes the main story’s themes of madness and deception.

Hattie Morahan is superb as Beatrice-Joanna, wide-eyed and innocent yet capable of the wildest deeds if it means getting what she wants. Trystan Gravelle is also excellent as De Flores, the wicked servant obsessed with his mistress. While Beatrice-Joanna loves Alsemero, it’s her relationship with De Flores that propels the play forward and it is by far the most fascinating partnership of the piece, with Beatrice seemingly impressed by, even at moments attracted to, her servant even while she is repulsed by him. As far as the subplot is concerned, Pearce Quigley excels as Lollio, the warden of the asylum, his simple and genial outlook belied by a chilling air of authority (though there is one very funny joke involving an inmate who keeps trying to come on stage when he’s not wanted).

Gorgeously lit by candles, with near-darkness adding to the impact of the tensest moments, this is a beautifully atmospheric production. This is how Jacobean tragedy is supposed to be performed, and I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to see it.