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 The Theatreguide.London Review


The Changeling
Barbican Theatre May-June 2006

Middleton and Rowley's 1622 play is in all the Contemporaries-of-Shakespeare anthologies, and it gets revived every ten years or so, almost always unsuccessfully.

This production, kicking off Cheek by Jowl's residency at the Barbican, is crisp and clear, with a very modern feel, but I'm afraid that's almost all the good things I have to say about it.

There were several school groups in the theatre when I saw it, and they were unusually focussed and unfidgety, which speaks well of the production. On the other hand, those around me were constantly writing in their notebooks, preparing for class the next day, which suggests that the play never really captured and held them.

Several things conspire to make this production cool and uninvolving. First, the play itself - this is the one about the bride-to-be who has her groom killed so she can wed someone else, and then discovers that one crime has a way of leading to others and that murder makes strange bedfellows. (A comic subplot set in a madhouse has some thematic connections, but always plays as if those actors had wandered into the wrong theatre.)

As a study in the corrupting power of evil, the main plot has some intellectual fascination, but with just about everyone in the play corrupt or devious in some way, there's no one for us to identify with or care about.

For this version director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod have constructed a new arena on the Barbican's cavernous stage, but instead of bringing us closer to the action, this actually alienates us even further than a more conventional staging would. The minimal set merely underlines how vast the stage-and-backstage area is, and actors repeatedly play intimate scenes shouting to each other from great distances, their voices echoing into occasional inaudibility.

Modern dress helps make the characterisations more real, but the by-now old-hat Brechtian device of keeping 'offstage' characters sitting around the stage undermines that, as does the open doubling, main figures from one plot serving as extras in the other.

All these things combine to distance and sterilize the play, and for all its talk of passion and all its killing, it remains oddly bloodless.

While Olivia Williams is unable to bring much reality to the central figure, the always admirable Will Keen nicely underplays the loathsome servant she at first employs and then falls under the power of. In the subplot, Jodie McNee is good as a seeming slut who is actually a loyal wife and Tobias Beer effective as a comic warder.

This one, I fear, is strictly for the students, whether they're in school like the girls sitting around me or just followers of Tudor and Stuart drama looking to tick off one more on their yet-to-see list.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Changeling - Barbican 2006