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Reviewed by:
  • Women Beware Women
  • Peter Kirwan
Women Beware Women Presented by The National Theatre at the Olivier, London. April 27–July 1, 2010. Directed by Marianne Elliott. Designed by Lez Brotherston. Lighting by Neil Austin. Music by Olly Fox. Choreographed by Arthur Pita. Fights by Kate Waters. With Samuel Barnett (Leantio), Harriet Walter (Livia), Richard Lintern (Duke of Florence), Lauren O'Neil (Bianca Capello), Raymond Coulthard (Hippolito), Vanessa Kirby (Isabella), Andrew Woodall (Guardiano), Tilly Tremayne (Leantio's Mother), James Hayes (Fabritio), Harry Melling (The Ward), Nick Blood (Sordido), Chu Omambala (Lord Cardinal), and Samuel James (Messenger).

The twenty-first-century reclamation of Thomas Middleton begun by Gary Taylor's team with the Oxford Collected Works has been enthusiastically championed by the National Theatre. The edition was published in the same year as Melly Still's Revenger's Tragedy at the Olivier, and Marianne Elliott's Women Beware Women conveniently coincided with its republication in paperback. The canonization of the dramatist in print by OUP, and in performance by the National, speaks to a growing institutional investment in the man Taylor refers to as "our other Shakespeare."

The scale of Elliott's production testified to this investment. Lez Brotherston's revolving set was dominated by Doric columns supporting the crumbling motto of Grand Duke Cosimo de'Medici, historical father of the play's Duke. Beneath this edifice, rich and poor literally backed onto one another in a society burdened by social divisions. Leantio's home, with rickety fire escape and peeling paintwork, was reflected in the lavishness of Livia's polished floor and marble staircase on the other side of the revolve. The awkwardness of traversing the divide was obvious (especially for Leantio's Mother, dwarfed in Livia's hall) and contributed to some of the production's most powerful sequences.

The Duke's first encounter with Bianca was played out as a physical pursuit, and began with him chasing her across the opulent balcony [End Page 517] of Livia's home; then, as the stage turned, he followed Bianca into the poverty-stricken alleys outside her new home in an act of social and physical debasement. Yet, rather than being raped in the streets, the Duke forced her back up the stairs leading to Livia's house, turning the rape into a simultaneous elevation into a space of wealth, sexuality and power. Fittingly, it was on the marble staircase that she subsequently re-emerged, one hand over her crotch in an ambiguous gesture of discomfort and new awareness.

In Elliott's hands, this was a play about the (in)ability of women to reconcile independence and sexuality within the constraints of a patriarchal society that treated them as commodities. In Bianca's case, her transformation following the rape began with her decision to play by the rules set by Guardiano and Livia, whom she immediately attacked in an attitude of disgust and hatred. Embracing sex as a product of power and wealth rather than love, she became incompatible with the world of the Mother, and accepted her formal summons to the Duke with relief. The innocence of her relationship with Samuel Barnett's Leantio was poignantly evoked in their meeting in 4.1; both newly rich and resigned to their new positions, their mutual recriminations were injected with emotion, expressing a bitter nostalgia for what had been lost.

Vanessa Kirby's Isabella experienced a similarly conflicted empowerment through sexual awakening. Her politic coyness was instantly shed upon Livia's "revelation" of her genealogy, and she immediately took the physical initiative with Hippolito, pressing her whole body against him. The lack of inhibition extended beyond her lover: during her "appraisal" by The Ward and Sordido, they lay down and instructed her to walk. Rolling her eyes, she spread her skirts and stood astride the Ward's head, allowing him a long look. This growing confidence with her body extended to the Duke's party: to a live soundtrack of sultry jazz, Isabella and Hippolito performed a smoldering tango that left other revelers watching with dropped jaws. The Ward's attempts to replicate Hippolito's moves were the evening's comic highlight.

The young men of this production were ridiculous, whether...


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