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A CurtainUp London Review
by Neil Dowden
Since 1981 Cheek by Jowl have consolidated a considerable reputation as an innovative company best known for bringing a fresh approach to classic European drama by the likes of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Corneille and Pushkin. Led by director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, who have also been working with a group of Russian actors in Moscow since 2000, they will be presenting two productions a year at the Barbican for the next three years, one in English and one in Russian (with English surtitles).
Ahead of their Russian version of Twelfth Night, Cheek by Jowl's opening show is Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's 1622 Jacobean tragedy The Changeling. As you'd expect from this gory genre, the play is a torrid tale of lust, rape, murder, treachery and madness, backed up with plenty of black humour, in which most of the characters are either villains or victims, or both. Although staged with the company's characteristically dynamic theatricality and striking visuals, this modern-dress production remains a curiously bloodless affair for such a passionate story, so it proves difficult to engage fully with any of the protagonists.
The governor of Alicante, Vermandero (David Collings), has arranged for his daughter Beatrice Joanna (Olivia Williams) to marry the nobleman Alonzo de Piracquo (Laurence Spellman). But after Beatrice has met and fallen in love with the handsome Alsemero (Tom Hiddleston) she persuades her father's ill-favoured servant De Flores (Will Keen) to murder her fiancé so she can marry her sweetheart. However, the besotted De Flores demands her body not money as reward, and the two descend into a downward spiral of moral corruption as their efforts to conceal the original murder and their affair leads to further deception and violence.
In a comic subplot (written by Rowley), set in a lunatic asylum, we see two inmates pretending to be mad in order to seduce the young wife of the doctor. The parallels between the out of control emotions in the governor's castle and the calculated trickery in the madhouse suggests the line between the sane and the irrational is a thin one, and that civilized behaviour is always under threat from animal passions.
Cheek by Jowl have reconfigured the huge Barbican auditorium into a large studio theatre, but use the backstage as well as the stage for performance so that the cast seem to get swallowed up in the space, acting against the claustrophobic content. Donnellan emphasizes the links between the two plots by having the leading actors in one play minor roles in the other, and at one point they all join hands in a surreal danse macabre as Grand Guignol meets Marat Sade.
Ormerod's expressive minimalist design suggests a black laboratory in which scientific experiments on human emotions are carried out. The lighting by Judith Greenwood is also highly effective, with the darkness of the castle contrasted with the relentless neon lighting of the asylum, and individual actors often spotlit as if under examination.
As Beatrice Joanna, Olivia Williams conveys a strong sense of moral decay but fails to project the necessary sensuality of a woman who, after being initially repelled by De Flores, later finds him disturbingly attractive. Will Keen is intently understated as De Flores, suggesting an all-consuming obsession with Beatrice that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake. And Tom Hiddleston shows how Alsemero ignores his better judgement as he gets involved in much more than he bargained for. Overall, a compelling if clinical dissection of the darkness of the human heart.
Editor's Note: Readers might be interested in another production CurtainUp reviewed quite some time ago in New York. To read it go here
Changeling, from a choreographer's viewpoint