Women Beware Women @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Harriet Walter, Samuel Barnett, Vanessa Kirby, Harry Melling, Lauren O’Neil, Tilly Tremayne, Andrew Woodhall , Sioned Jones, Nick Blood, Kelsey Brookfield, Raymond Coulthard, Laura Cubitt, James le Feuvre, James Hayes, Samuel James, Bryan Kennedy, Richard Lintern, Adam Maskell, Chu Omambala, Mark Rawlings, Sebastien Torkia

directed by
Marianne Elliott
Nobody comes out well in Jacobean tragedy: the innocent are victims, while their predators are punished. And in Thomas Middletons starkly Calvinist Women Beware Women, the innocent are themselves corrupted before meeting their doom.

Like most of these plays, this one is set in Italy, seen by Middleton and his contemporaries as a hotbed of vice and depravity (and therefore ideal for their lurid melodramas), with part of the plot based on real events and people in Medici Florence.

Bankers clerk Leantio tries to hide away his highly desirable trophy bride Bianca but she is spotted by the powerful Duke who proceeds to rape her and make her his mistress, while paying off her weak husband.
In parallel, Isabella rebels against her forced marriage to the rich but stupid Ward by having an incestuous affair with her uncle Hippolito. Both of these sinful liaisons are manipulated by the Machiavellian widow Livia, who seems to want to bring other women down to her amoral level.

As its title suggests, this cynical play is a warning that sisterhood is not to be relied upon in a world corroded by original sin in which lust, greed and betrayal are the norm. But Middleton shows that while the women are doing dirty work on behalf of men in this patriarchal society, they are also portrayed as strong, feisty characters with whom it is easier to sympathize than their male counterparts.

Following on from Melly Stills voluptuously design-led modern-dress production of Middletons The Revengers Tragedy at the Olivier last year, Marianne Elliotts staging of Women Beware Women, which evokes a perverted Felliniesque 1950s hedonistic lifestyle, is visually striking and highly accessible. However, this show also, though revelling in Middletons lusty violence and macabre humour, does not quite penetrate to the dark heart of the human tragedy or always make the sudden character changes psychologically credible.

Nonetheless, the set pieces are skilfully handled, including the scene where Livia outwits Biancas mother-in-law in a chess game while the latters charge is being violated upstairs by the Duke and a sumptuous banquet whose groaningly over-laden table mirrors the sensual excesses of the protagonists. Above all, the usually ludicrous climactic bloodbath is brilliantly done, with masked black-clad, reefer-smoking angels of death clambering over their prey like carrion birds as the Olivier revolves dizzily.

As the pander at the centre of the plays web, Harriet Walter gives a superb performance, executing Livias life-destroying machinations with the coolness of an elegant hostess, but hinting at an emotional emptiness inside. Lauren ONeills makes clear that Biancas submissiveness to Richard Linterns charming but ruthless Duke is a reaction to the pathetic possessiveness of Samuel Barnetts Leantio. Vanessa Kirby is the virgin turned vamp Isabella and Raymond Coulthard is her over-familiar kinsman Hippolito, while Harry Melling is very funny in parodying the macho posturings of the Ward

Lez Brotherstons excellent design, with its overpowering neo-classical arch, sweeping staircase and glittering chandeliers, forms a fittingly luxurious background, while Olly Foxs lounge-jazz score and sultry singing from Wendy Nieper adds to the insidiously seductive ambience. In the words of one of the songs, taken from the play-text: Sin tastes, at the first draught, like wormwood water/But, drunk again, tis nectar ever after.

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