Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Revenge tragedy it ain’t. There’s no revenger `hero’ to go on a murdering journey of justice though the body count does mount up at the end. But Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling (1622 or thereabouts) bears all the hallmarks of the genre: blood, gore, lust, a ghost or two, sexual blackmail with morality finally emerging in an act of reconciliation.
Middleton is one of those Renaissance playwrights I’d most like to have met. His plays deal directly with private as well as public lives; he has a strong sense of the domestic, of the nexus of power, sex, ambition, women’s place in society and what happens to them when they begin to kick against the traces.
The Changeling’s Beatrice-Joanna is a case in point. A hastily`arranged’ marriage by her wealthy father triggers a violent revolt – so violent it involves having the fiancée dispatched by none other than her father’s servant, De Flores, a man the sight of whom sends Beatrice into paroxysms of revulsion. But the impulse leads to catastrophobic consequences to which Beatrice-Joanna appears blind.
But then Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling is all about attraction of opposites, and the adoption of disguise as well as the `lunatic’ nature of love and its attainment.
This last is a crucial part of the picture. Madness. Throughout The Changeling, as Beatrice-Joanna pursues her heart’s desires runs the parallel `comedy’ of another household – the aged husband in fear of cuckolding, losing his young wife to younger suitors and locking her up with the other inmates of his home which happens to be a home for `fools and madmen’. An asylum or madhouse.
The domesticity and darkness of of Middleton and Rowley’s bitter comedy lends itself well to the hermetic, candlelit atmosphere of Shakespeare’s Globe Sam Wanamaker indoor candlelit Jacobean playhouse. It’s not the most eloquent of productions you’ll ever see; Indeed, although the Globe boasts a voice coach, its productions even when indoors continue to labour under the illusion that gabble and informality endow productions with a cutting edge modernity. Sad to report, they don’t. They simply make the text more impenetrable and garbled.
Hattie Morahan, a wonderful award-winning Nora in the Young Vic’s A Doll’s House in recent times is the worst offender here. Perhaps taking her cue from the lunatic nature of Beatrice’s behaviour, she nods and wheels about, her voice in freefall, swooping and cutting sense to ribbons.
Somehow an authentic weirdness and the heart of the play still emerges in Dominic Dromgoole’s wayward but strangely affecting production with musicians first seated in the gallery, incorporated into the action as the candles flutter and the madmen howl and batter behind the grilles of the Jacobean gold-rimmed doors. It’s both intimate and yet very worldly.
Best performance of the evening comes from Pearce Quigley as the loyal, crusty, cynical Lollio, servant and gaoler in the madhouse who makes something both sinister, humorous and revealing of the treatment of the mentally sick and as a comment on the `lunatic’ behaviour of others all around him.
A strange, perplexing but not entirely wasted evening if you have a taste for the ghoulish, macabre and bleakly funny.
First published in Londongrip Jan 2015