The innovative Cheek By Jowl, under the artistic directorship of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, is marking its 25th year by setting up residence at the Barbican.
Eagerly awaited, their intense and inventive production of The Changeling proves to be an excellent way to begin their inaugural season at the venue that will be their new home for the next three years.
Middleton and Rowley’s complex play about dual and false identities, passion and madness, is all too relevant in our society of instant gratification. Set in Alicante, the play concerns a messy three-way relationship. Beatrice-Joanna, (played by the excellent Olivia Williams) is promised to Alonzo but has fallen in love with Alsemero. She is also repulsed yet strangely attracted to the deformed De Flores. It is her liaison with this third man, who awakens her passion and lust, that will prove her ultimate downfall.
The play’s notorious sub-plot, usually attributed to Thomas Middleton’s collaborator William Rowley, appears initially to be much more frivolous than the dark, claustrophobic passions being awoken at the castle. Set in a lunatic asylum, it concerns two men pretending to be mad in order to get closer to the head of the asylum’s pretty, young wife. Cleverly, Donnellan has populated his asylum with the same cast members and this ably links these two disparate plot strands together. More significantly, it creates a connection in the audience’s mind between the fragile lunacy of those locked away and the torrid madness being perpetrated on the outside.
Ormerod’s unusual design sees everything stripped away to show the bare back wall of the Barbican theatre along with two simple black pillars. In the play’s clever opening scene, the actors come on with red plastic chairs and, by setting them at angles to each other, they transform the space into the interior of a church with people at prayer stands. If there is a criticism to be made it is that the sheer size of the space dissipates some of the tension and claustrophobia necessary to truly terrify the audience.
The lighting design by Judith Greenwood is equally inventive, as characters come on to the stage their shadows loom long and ominously across the space; it’s a very effective technique that further adds to a sense of tension, even before the play has revealed the depth of its dark heart.
This production has a large and skilled cast and it pleases me to say that there is not one weak link amongst the actors. Olivia Williams is magnificent as the selfish, dissatisfied Beatrice Joanna, whose passion and vibrant personality is violently awoken by Will Keen’s mesmerising De Flores. Keen first comes across as a kind of slimy politician, in his well cut suit, following Beatrice Joanna around with an obsessive, unrequited love. It is only gradually you realise that this man’s passion for her is a kind of madness that will destroy them both.
In the end madness is the theme that resonates most, every one of the men and women paraded before you are mad in some way or another; lust, greed, pride and envy are all sins which can lead to madness, and in typical Jacobean style, ultimately death. This is a terrific, intense night at the theatre, which bodes well for Cheek By Jowl’s tenure at the Barbican.