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A CurtainUp London London Review
Women Beware Women

Men buy their slaves, but women buy their masters. — Isabella
Women Beware Women
Lauren O'Neil as Bianca Capello and Samuel Barnett as Leantio (Photo: Simon Annand)
Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, possibly written in 1621, is brought gloriously to life by the National Theatre. Its Italianate tale of lust and love, full of seduction and murder, panders to our xenophobic mistrust and pompous self-righteousness. Peopled by Italian nobles, in name if not in nature, who manipulate their lowly neighbours to satisfy their personal whims, Women Beware Women is a Jacobean tragedy in its purest sense. As with all good tragedy, sex and base comedy provide sensual relief from the bitterness of the play's fundamental, misogynistic message: women, as objects to be owned by men, collude in their own enslavement and, given the opportunity, will even entrap other women for personal gain.

In the hands of director Marianne Elliott, Middleton's play rises above the status of academic exercise, exploding on the Olivier stage like a visual, visceral firework of emotional excess. Narrative clarity holds the key to Elliott's endeavour, her manipulation of the Olivier space and the actors who people it as slick and stylish as any Busby Berkeley set-piece.

Lez Brotherton's costume and set designs provide a fitting balance between ostentatious show and crumbling decay. Centrally situated on the Olivier revolve, a vast architectural arch, surmounted by a crumbling reference to 'Cosmus Medice', is flanked either by an aristocrat's sweeping staircase, or its humbler twisting fire-escape partner. Iron-clad central doors slide apart to reveal a seducer's bedroom or the anteroom to a ballroom. The whole structure spins on its axis, revealing the truth behind the facade. This Florentine grandeur is held aloft by a multitude of steel props, each apparently straining under the weight of impending collapse.

The world of this Florentine hell is peopled by misfits and innocents. The mother of a poor banker's clerk resides next to lady of court, whose lone-widowed status guarantees eventual burial on her own terms at least. Marry another man and she loses all her possessions. Of course, where there is money there are hangers-on, eager for power and wealth at whatever cost to themselves or others. Marriages of rich-though-inept young wards are negotiated with as little care as the daily quest for light relief and entertainment. Young virgins are metaphorically sacrificed on the altar of self-advancement. The desires of a select-few powerful men rule this sorry state.

Women Beware Women shows us this world, packaging its moralizing warning in a thick layer of pornographic innuendo. Perhaps only now can a twenty-first-century audience marvel at the incestuous embrace of an uncle, dancing erotically with the niece he has recently seduced, or laugh at the priapic contortions of a lusty young fool, the Ward (Harry Melling), eagerly discussing his future bride's hairy pudenda. High-sounding message and raw, basic sex are the keys to Middleton's drama.

I have to confess, I am one of the few who have seen this obscure play before, and particularly underwhelmed I was at the time. Elliott's production, however, takes this Jacobean sex-tragedy to a new level. The subtlety of character and nuance of performance are entirely due to a magnificent cast of actors who bring twenty-first-century reality into their stereotypical parts. Samuel Barnett is delightful as the banker's clerk, Leantio, who forces his mother to accept his new-found wife, and to care for her whilst he's away. Barnett's Leantio simpers and pines for his young bride's touch, the abuse he eventually suffers making him an object of sympathy and ridicule in equal measure.

Leantio's Mother, beautifully underplayed by Tilly Tremayne, fears the worst for her son, but still recognizes the benefit which her young daughter-in-law's good-looks can bring to herself and her sweet tooth. Beautiful this young girl is. Lauren O'Neill's Bianca Capello is worthy of the interest she receives from the Duke of Florence (Richard Lintern), though she does not deserve the lounge-lizard's rape or his murderous attempts to make her his own.

All these horrors are facilitated by the Duke's courtiers, principal among which is Livia, a widow whose own sexual prowess is never in doubt. Harriet Walter prowls like a sinewy seductress in the role. Walter's Livia is, of course, the woman most other women should beware of. When she herself is crossed in love, all hell breaks loose. Florence is reduced to a bloodbath of revenge.

Livia assists her brother, Hippolito, to seduce his own niece. Raymond Coulthard oozes malevolent charm as Hippolito, enticing the feisty Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) into his familial bed. Likewise, Andrew Woodall's Guardiano assists with easy charm the acquisition of suitable young maids for his powerful superiors. Sex and the female body are the currencies of Florence, freely bartered and exchanged, only to be discarded when devalued in the "youth and innocence seeking" market.

The final dramatic moments of the play so easily might crumble into comic death-drenched farce. Elliott's impressive use of the Olivier's revolve, circling at break-neck speed as we watch villain after villain attack and fall, is as filmic in its visual trickery as it is focused in its precision. This is a stylish production, performed with utmost professionalism and integrity by a magnificent cast. Ultimately, it is the style which drags Middleton's play out of the mire of sensationalist, misogynistic and rabidly anti-Italian melodrama, and into the realms of 'high-art' entertainment. Justifiable pretensions to grandeur? You decide, although I for one was enthralled by this slick and sex-driven play.

Editor's Note: The play received a colorful revival Off-Broadway not too long ago. To read about how that was staged go here.

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Women Beware Women
Written by Thomas Middleton
Directed by Marianne Elliott

Starring: Samuel Barnett, Harriet Walter, Raymond Coulthard, Vanessa Kirby, Tilly Tremayne, Andrew Woodall, Nick Blood, Richard Lintern, Harry Melling
With: Kelsey Brookfield, Laura Cubitt, James le Feuvre, James Hayes, Samuel James, Sioned Jones, Bryan Kennedy, Adam Maskell, Chu Omambala, Lauren O'Neil, Mark Rawlings, Sebastien Torkia
Design: Lez Brotherston
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Music: Olly Fox
Choreographer: Arthur Pita
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running time: Three hours including one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 4th July 2010
Reviewed by Kevin Quarmby based on 28th April 2010 performance at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube:Waterloo)

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