Women Beware Women – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer: Thomas Middleton

Director: Amy Hodge

It is a great week for lovers of Thomas Middleton as two of his plays have their opening nights in London. Next week, The Revenger’s Tragedy has a short run at the Barbican but first The Globe stage a more sympathetic revival of Women Beware Women in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of their controversially named She Wolves and Shrews season. It is a play that pits an evil conniving female against her less than virtuous counterparts, but director Amy Hodge wants to make a case for its relevance in the #MeToo era.

This is the seventeenth-century so Middleton doesn’t exactly present women in the best light and while they suffer rape, objectification and sexual indignities while being traded for commercial gain, the writer also shows them to be lustful temptresses whose virginity and virtue are too easily disposed of before their wanton ways are duly punished. Some men are punished too but it’s all women’s fault.

With that in mind, there is some sympathy with the Globe’s attempt to reposition Middleton’s tale and to find a deeper motivation in the behaviour of female characters forced to take extreme measures in a patriarchal system that left them with only their bodies and wits to exert any kind of power. While the agency of Livia in particular drives the plot, the production never shakes off its male perspective; these are female characters as written by a man who focuses almost solely on their lasciviousness and duplicity.

The classically Jacobean plot is fairly convoluted which the first hour of Hodge’s production does little to clarify (the synopsis takes up a page and half in the programme). Essentially Livia has two brothers Fabritio and Hippolito. Fabritio forces his daughter Isabella to marry a mindless nobleman but she has a mutual incestuous attraction to Hippolito so Livia convinces Isabella that he’s not her uncle and they begin an affair. Meanwhile, the lower class Leantio has married Bianca in secret but she catches the eye of the Duke of Florence, so to earn his favour Livia arranges for the Duke to rape Bianca and she becomes his mistress. So, when Livia then takes Leantio as her lover, tragedy ensues.

Relocated to a modern era, possibly the 1980s, Joanna Scotcher’s design of black marble and golden gates fits nicely into the Sam Wanamaker playhouse suggesting the conspicuous wealth of the Italian aristocracy. The costume team complete the vision in a palette of black, white, gold and beige which unites the characters as their lives become increasingly entangled reflecting  both the class and gender conflicts which run through the play, while the design for the Greek-inspired wedding masque finale looks wonderful in the candlelit setting.

The tone in the early part of the play is fairly uneven, and the show fails to develop the dark inevitability that could give the approach greater texture. Instead there is plenty of comedy, particularly in a very broad interpretation of Ward. The second act running at 1 hour and 20-minutes is more successful, building tension as the various plots and counterplots finally start to pay off, with Livia’s seduction scene a high point along with the Hamlet-like finale which delivers plenty of shock-value.

Thalissa Teixeira is excellent as Bianca, a young bride in love whose violation is powerfully rendered, and while empathetic she succumbs to the role of fallen women and potential poisoner as Teixeira develops Bianca’s harder outer shell. Olivia Vinall’s equally betrayed Isabella is a credulous fool but she too dispenses with her virginity and proposes adultery with considerable cunning, while Tara Fitzgerald’s Livia is the arbiter of everyone else’s misery undone by her own lust for Leantio, scenes which are a high point in the performance that also has most of the soliloquies.

Hodge casts female actors in male roles to double down on the meaning of Women Beware Women but it is not a decision that adds much to the overall effect. And there is more to some of the male characters than we see in this truncated version with Paul Adeyefa’s Leantio, Daon Broni’s Hippolito and Simon Kunz as the Duke offering intriguing character studies as a triumvirate of men who bear as much responsibility for the destruction of these women as Livia but are pressed into the background – the Duke in particular has a speech in which he begs forgiveness from the church for keeping a strumpet in one breath while vowing to kill Leantio in another which says much about morally acceptable behaviour in this era!

Middleton’s play is full of complicated transactions, of commerce, class, gender and concerns about who is using who. Even Leantio’s mother the good widow (Stephanie Jacob) does not escape scrutiny for facilitating the downfall of her daughter-in-law. But in trying to rescue or at least explain the wicked behaviour of the female characters Hodge’s production merely emphasises how poorly women have been served by male writers for centuries.

Runs until 18 April 2020

The Reviews Hub Score

Fairly uneven

The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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