Alexander Gordon Wood
Lily Ann Green
Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy, written in 1622, is, amongst much else, a psychological study of the disfigured De Flores, servant to the beautiful Beatrice, a lady he adores. She finds her fiance, mummy’s boy Alonzo de Piraquo, something of a nuisance – she’d much rather be enjoying the attentions of the heroic Alsemero.
Beatrice’s beauty is proven to be skin-deep only, when she devises a plot for De Flores to rid her of Piraquo, in so doing sealing his own doom and leaving her free from unwanted affections. But when De Flores does the deed, Beatrice’s control of events rapidly slips from her grasp. In amongst all this is a subplot about mad people in an asylum.
Sarah Drinkwater’s production at the Courtyard presents us with a black stage and boys strutting about in leather jackets. At first, only the lines give lie to the notion that we’re about to see a production of Grease. The Changeling was originally set in sunny, sultry southern Spain, but this production suggests a rehearsal room in some anonymous English town.
Of the actors, Roddy McFerrell, an Anglo-Scottish take on the mannerisms of Ethan Hawke, dominates the stage as Alsemero. His burning looks of passion at Kate Gribble’s Beatrice make him a dashing romantic lead.
But Edward Culver’s De Flores, very far from disfigured, oozes delicious wickedry as the ugly souls of he and Beatrice recognise each other as kin. De Flores can be played as a straightforward villain, but Culver’s quietly intense performance leaves the audience rooting for the classic anti-hero bucking the system, a baddie for sure but one whose actions cause wry smiles. While all else around him is dramatic flourish and hollering projection, Culver is quiet, his words frightening and attention-grabbing.
Eleanor Barr, as Alibius’s whip-happy servant Lollio in the asylum subplot, is superb comic relief as she does her best to restrain the howling hordes that are her madhouse charges, and Alexander Gordon Wood is a suitably authoritative figure as Alibius. Chris Waiting as Piraquo has great fun as a Boris Johnson double, a ghost and a madman. Other cast members, perhaps due to first-night nerves, muddled up their words, but bad diction was the exception, rather than the rule, here.
The cast also milk the play’s bawdy qualities for all they’re worth – The Changeling not only gives Shakespeare a run for his money in this department but has scenes that would happily fit into a Carry On film. Drinkwater is to be commended for getting the mood balance between the tragic and the comedic just about right – and once we get over the non-set and peculiar costumes, the play holds its own. Pity the cast though – apart from company regulars, there was scarcely a murmur to heard from the audience, even in the funnier moments. Did they not get the jokes? Were they asleep?
The Changeling is ultimately a cautionary tale, depicting how quickly events can spin from a manipulator’s grasp when passion dictates that sins be committed. But it also suggests that, in the end, “well bred men” will always triumph over their servile brothers who dare to covet a higher station, and defines women as mere possessions. For all the bawdy comedy, it’s a distressing viewpoint in the 21st century, especially when we want the baddies to win.