The National Theatre seems to have been trawling the archives of rarely performed plays of late – first we have Ibsen’s rarely performed Master and Galilean, now we have Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, a tragedy from 1607. One must ask what a revival of a play such as this, which would struggle onto the second tier below Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, seeks to achieve – it certainly informs, as an example of what sort of drama was being produced in Jacobean London outside The Globe; in its exposition on the role of women in 17th Century society it educates; but crucially for modern audiences – does it entertain?
Essentially it is a straightforward morality tale of the good and the bad woman. John & Anne Frankford are recently married. Frankford welcomes his guest Wendoll to his house and tells him to take what he finds as his own – Wendoll takes him at his word and starts an affair with his wife. When Frankford (Paul Ready) discovers the couple in flagrante, he chooses not to kill his wife but turns her out of his house. Repenting of her ways, she starves herself to death. Meanwhile, the odious Sir Charles Mountford has run up three thousand pounds in gambling debts, and is imprisoned. Sir Charles Acton offers to pay off his debts if he can marry Sir Charles’ sister Susan, but as a chaste maiden, she is unwilling. However, unlike Anne, she knows her duty to her brother and agrees to marry in the end.
As the synopsis shows, protofeminist classic it ain’t, which makes Katie Mitchell’s decision to adapt it relocating the period to the 1920s more intriguing.
The set is both sumptuous and inspired. We are presented with sections of two elegant one-storey country houses side by side. Both houses have a bustle of activity upstairs and downstairs, with the audience being directed from one house to the other by a trademark Katie Mitchell buzzing light-switch, this ensuring the comparison between the two women is permanently foregrounded.
The first problem, however, is that the two parallel stories, are not dramatically equivalent. To be honest it is difficult to see why Wendoll (Sebastian Armesto) would fall for a pregnant Anne, as, despite the best efforts of Liz White, her part is written with so little personality shining through that it is difficult to see why he might choose to make the effort. Sandy McDade as Susan has more of a spark, but the subplot is so convoluted, and her brother (Leo Bill, overacting splendidly) such an odious weed, that one wishes she would protect her honour and let her brother rot. It is in the Frankford’s household that the action is happening and the interest lies. The double-entendres of the card-game Between the Sheets are splendid, the discovery scene very powerful.
The second problem is that of the temporal relocation. This is a play whose whole raison d’être is to contrast the bad wife and the virtuous sister. Usually when directors change a play’s setting, it is either to make it more relevant, as brilliantly done in One Man Two Guvnors, or to emphasise the universality of the themes in the play – as Katie Mitchell herself did in Iphigenia at Aulis. Yet what is a morality play to a Jacobean audience is deeply misogynistic to one from the 21st century, and even in the 1920s Landowners did not threaten to kill errant wives. As is the case in productions of The Taming of the Shrew, this is a problem that the director must confront, and in my opinion Katie Mitchell’s solution fudged rather than resolved the issue.
However, Katie Mitchell always challenges – she may not always succeed, but one never leaves her productions without being provoked. This was a worthwhile production of an interesting if not a great play, which casts an interesting light on 17th Century Patriarchy. The choreography of the scene changes, the dappling piano accompaniment, the movement and energy of all the characters all ensured that, despite lacking the poetry or subtlety we associate with the likes of Shakespeare, Webster or Fletcher, it never ceased to entertain.