The Theatreguide.London Review
Women Beware Women
Olivier Theatre Spring-Summer 2010
Although a programme note arguing that Thomas Middleton ranks with his contemporary Shakespeare is not particularly convincing, Marianne Elliott's sharp and stylish production of his 1621 drama proves a thoroughly entertaining high-class soap opera, a Dynasty or Dallas set in Borgia-era Italy, complete with family secrets, lecherous men, seducible women and a delightfully wicked witch.
The play might better be titled Women Beware Woman, since the guiding, if not driving force behind most of the plots and counterplots is the rich widow played with verve by Harriet Walter.
Proud of her cleverness and wiles, and more out of enjoyment of the game than any other motive, it is she who helps her brother seduce their niece (by convincing the girl she's a bastard and thus not really related), who helps a randy Duke get his hands on the young bride next door (by flattering and distracting her mother-in-law), and who falls in lust at first sight with that bride's groom and does all she can to comfort him.
The worst that can be said against most of the other characters is that once they step over the line into sin they continue enthusiastically, satisfying not only their sexual appetites but their enmities and jealousies.
By the end of the play they're all plotting against someone they resent, and the play ends with a phantasmagorical party at which everybody murders everybody else, leaving the stage more corpse-strewn than Hamlet.
Director Elliott and designer Lez Brotherston have set the play in the 1950s, perhaps to evoke La Dolce Vita Italy, and the actors are particularly successful in making the 17th-century verse sound natural and conversational.
An especially well-directed and well-played opening scene in which Samuel Barnett as the young groom introduces his bride to Tilly Tremayne playing his mother is so totally homey and natural that our ears quickly attune to the verse and occasional archaisms, so that we hardly notice them through the rest of the play.
Along with Harriet Walter's bitch-you-love-to-hate, Tilly Tremayne's not-a-clue sweet old dear and Samuel Barnett's born victim, Lauren O'Neil (bride) and Vanessa Kirby (niece) offer two not-unsympathetic portraits of too-easily corrupted women.
Just as in modern TV, the key to successful soap opera lies in never admitting that it's all tosh, and the entire cast's commitment to the reality of this glossy fiction, along with the high style of the production, carries the evening.
No one, except possibly for the programme note writer, could argue that this is high tragedy, but it is good dirty fun.
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