Some great and some ghastly ideas jostle around in Marianne Elliott’s busy production of Thomas Middleton’s 1621 play at the National Theatre; it’s hard to say exactly which wins out in the end. The production’s approach is somewhat reminiscent of that of Phyllida Lloyd’s version of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi at the NT in 2003: Italy-set Jacobean tragedy presented through a modern prism, influenced by 1950s Italian cinema. But Elliott’s production lacks the sustained intensity of Lloyd’s and gets bogged down in sometimes gimmicky effects. The production is an uneven, though always intriguing, mix of insight and clumsy over-emphasis.
It’s easy to see the play’s appeal for Elliott who has specialised in re-imagining classic drama with strong female protagonists, from The Little Foxes through Pillars of the Community to Therese Raquin and last year’s wonderful All’s Well That Ends Well. Middleton’s play focuses on the interwoven fates of two young girls, Bianca and Isabella (played here, excellently, by Lauren O’Neill and Vanessa Kirby) who are subject to the manipulations of assorted relatives and authority figures, in particular those of Isabella’s widowed aunt Livia (Harriet Walter). The production’s great highlight comes midway through, when the deadly Livia distracts Bianca’s mother-in-law (Tilly Tremayne) with a chess game so that Bianca’s rape by the Duke of Florence (Richard Lintern) can be accomplished. The scene is played and staged to chilling perfection. Walters brings wit, poise and intelligence to Livia and hers is probably the standout performance of the production (watch out for her extraordinary unexpected reaction when Bianca hisses an insult at her), though there’s fine work from Tremayne, Samuel Barnett, Raymond Coulthard, and from Harry Melling, who gives a strikingly unpredictable performance as the Ward to whom the unfortunate Isabella has been promised.
The production is at its strongest when it goes easier on the design concepts and the choreography and trusts Middleton’s pungent, sometimes filthy language to do the work. But Elliot seems in thrall to the big set-piece here, and the staging of the climactic blood-bath as an expressionist ballet is, I think, a sad mistake. And whoever thought that a jazz score would be appropriate for a Jacobean tragedy? Olly Fox’s music drains tension and momentum from the scenes. A line like “Sin tastes, at the first draught, like wormwood water/But drunk again, ’tis nectar ever after” sounds great when declaimed by Harriet Walter, but it's less effective when sung as a refrain by a jazz diva. (I seem to recall that Eliott used a similar device to this in her 2006 Cuba-set production of Much Ado About Nothing.) A mixed bag, then, but, despite its odder impulses, this Women Beware Women boasts enough distinctive elements to make it worth your time.