Women Beware Women is a cautionary tale of the consequences of the pursuit of wealth, power and lust in the 16th Century Florentine court written by Thomas Middleton. It takes up residence at the National Theatre, in the Olivier, as part of its Travelex season, so lots of £10 tickets should become available when the new season opens for booking to the general public on 30th April.
The plot goes a little something like this: Bianca, the daughter of a wealthy Venetian family, elopes to Florence with a poor merchant’s clerk Leantio. While he’s away on business the Duke of Florence sees Bianca and is determined to seduce her. Bianca leaves her husband when the Duke offers her a life of luxury. In a separate plot line, Isabella is faced with going into a loveless marriage with a rich yet stupid ward. She’s appalled when her uncle Hippolito confesses his love for her. But her aunt Livia, Hippolito’s sister, cunningly persuades Isabella that she isn’t related by blood, so she’s tricked into an incestuous relationship with her uncle. That’s clear, right?
This was the second preview so they are still clearly ironing out some issues: it was a full half hour shorter than the first outing, but still a lengthy three hours and the first half in particular had a very slow pace with little use of the vast space of the Olivier. It must be said though that this is as much a fault of the play as anything, too many scenes in which too little happens. Things only really kicked into life just before the interval for me, but once it did, the play flew furiously by as the machinations of all involved got more and more twisted resulting in a finale of epic proportions which currently has less of the ‘wow!’ factor and more of a ‘huh?’ factor. In a ten minute mostly wordless scene, each of the plot strands reaches its climactic end as the set endlessly revolves, resulting in a complete visual overload of information, currently with insufficient narrative clarity to drive home the true scale of what we have just witnessed. It also recalls the opening scene of the recent production of The Revenger’s Tragedy which I can’t decide if it is a nice homage or just plain unoriginal.
Middleton’s strengths seem to lie in witty dialogue and being unafraid to go to delve in darker places than one might expect. That said, acting-wise, I found it solid rather than outstanding. Harriet Walter is strong as the manipulative Livia, but the honours probably go to Samuel Barnett who brings a real hurt and vulnerability to the cuckolded Leantio and Harry Melling has an absolute ball as The Ward, revelling in his insouciant foolishness and coming preciously close to stealing almost every scene he is in. Lauren O’Neill is also good as Bianca whose journey once sucked into the machinations of the Florentine court brings out a much darker side to her character.
This production is not lacking resources by any means and Marianne Elliot has brought together some delightful elements along with Lez Brotherston’s design. The live music and singer provide great sonic accompaniment, the costumes are beautifully opulent, Harriet Walter’s red dress in particular is gorgeous, there’s an amazingly sumptuous banquet which opens the second half, but the highlight for me was one of those design touches that only the National can manage. As the Duke wanders past Bianca’s balcony, he appears at the back of the stage and crosses over with a spotlight following him as glitter cascades from above all the while, it is a stunning image and highly effective. There is naturally a couple of occasions when the already rich pudding is over-egged though, most notably with the winged attendants in the final scene who sent the cry of ‘fly, my pretties’ dangerously close to my lips.
The more I think about this production the less I think I enjoyed it: with such a slow beginning and such a convoluted ending, I’m not sure how much I engaged with it at all. However, it is well-acted and the scale of the show is suitably grand for the Olivier and indeed, I left the theatre in quite a good mood so maybe it is one to just enjoy in the moment and then don’t bother contemplating it again!