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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Woman Killed With Kindness
Lyttelton Theatre     Summer 2011

Thomas Heywood's 1607 drama comes out of the bag marked Plays By Shakespeare's Minor Contemporaries. If you are a collector of such plays – and many are – you are not likely to encounter a better production than this, even though director Katie Mitchell has imposed some of her own vision and interpretation on it. 

And if you're not a Renaissance theatre buff, you can still find this an interesting and frequently touching domestic drama. 

Heywood tells two stories. In one, John and Ann Frankford are first met as happy newlyweds, but John's frequent business trips leave Ann prey to the advances of John's friend Wendoll. Discovering the affair, John disowns Ann, but provides for her in her banishment at a level that she feels undeservedly kind.

Elsewhere, country squire Sir Charles Mountford commits an impulsive crime that costs him his liberty and his fortune. He is only freed from prison and debt through the intercession of his worst enemy, who has fallen in love with Sir Charles' sister Susan. 

With no way to salvage his honour but through the loss of his sister's, Charles offers her to his hated benefactor, who chooses rather to marry her.

The titular woman is Ann, who pines away and dies of shame, but Katie Mitchell sees both stories as demonstrating a casual sexism and misogyny, a quality she underlines with between-scenes mimes that show the women being moved around like furniture. 

To enforce her interpretation she sometimes has to fight the text – though Heywood has Susan accept the marriage and say she has come to love her husband, Mitchell makes actress Sandy McDade play against the lines, and also reassigns the play's final line, which contains the title, so that Susan bitterly applies it to herself as well as Ann. 

Putting that imposed interpretation aside, what we do see is perhaps closer to Heywood's intention – two men making dubious decisions in extreme circumstances, with one – Charles – being more fortunate in the outcome.

Mitchell and designers Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer have updated the play to 1919, perhaps the last time women could be treated as possessions as casually as the director sees them being treated here, and the impressive set puts the two house interiors side by side throughout.

Leo Bill introduces Sir Charles from the start as one of life's weaklings and designated losers, while Sandy McDade makes Susan more of a passively stoic sufferer than I suspect Heywood intended. 

Paul Ready and Liz White make less impression as John and Ann, neither playwright nor director finding much beyond the generic in their roles.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - A Woman Kiled With Kindness - National Theatre 2011   

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