“Woman, hear thy judgement”
It’s typical really. When Wastwater at the Royal Court played out with hardly any of the (in)famous flair that director Katie Mitchell has become known for, I perversely rather missed it. Now she is back at the National Theatre with a production of Thomas Heywood’s 1603 play A Woman Killed with Kindness, updated to a loose 1920s setting and the kookiness is back. Am I glad? I’m not sure! The show is playing in the Lyttelton as part of the Travelex Season and this was a preview performance on 14th July.
The play is noted for one of the first tragedies to be written in the domestic sphere, looking at the loves and lives of everyday people. The marriage of John Frankford and his wife Anne is threatened by John inviting a man, Wendoll, into their home as a companion and to take all at his disposal: Wendoll thus pursues an affair with Anne much to John’s anger. Across the way, Sir Charles Mountford is heavily in debt and constantly in serious trouble due to his ructions with Sir Francis Acton (Anne’s brother). Acton is enamoured of Mountford’s sister Susan and she finds herself an unwitting pawn in her brother’s increasingly desperate attempts to get off the hook.
The figure of Anne is clearly juxtaposed against Susan here: both women struggling to deal with a world dominated by male ego and clumsy masculine expressions of power: each has to make their own decisions about how to deal with their life choices and to startlingly different effect. But though the Frankfords’ story is the dominant one, Mitchell has opted to present them as near equals. The set, which is astoundingly realised by co-designers Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer, is divided in two: the Mountfords’ ageing country pile replete with grand staircase and grand piano on the left and the Frankford’s more modest, more modern looking house with conventional staircase and upright piano on the left. Whilst scenes play on the one side, servants and masters fanny about on the other, sometimes pulling focus from where the attention ought to be and during the first half (although there is no interval), the production really struggles to hold much interest.
Heywood’s play isn’t particularly hot on exposition, there’s a number of occurrences that are left baffling unexplained and/or unexplored (especially given the importance of some of them), one wonders why this play has been deemed worthy of reviving in the end? But Mitchell doesn’t provide much clarity in many of her production choices: it’s all very well pitting these two stories against each other, but the Frankfords is where the majority of the action is and it is hard to escape the unbalanced feeling that comes from most of the genuine action happening on one side of the stage though the more interesting characters are on the other.
But though it may not always feel like it, there is a method to Mitchell’s ‘madness’: she inspires enduring loyalty in the actors who work with her, at least five here are returnees, and as the play begins to crank up in the later stages, everything starts to heat up and the naturalistic performances provoke greater interest as the emotion heightens. Leo Bill and Sandy McDade’s twisted sibling relationship is nicely observed, his philandering forcing her out of her naturally reclusive ways into the arms of Nick Fletcher’s bombastic Acton. Next door, the gorgeous Liz White (doesn’t she look like Katee Sackhoff, oh how I miss Starbuck) and a handsomely bearded Paul Ready struggle to find real people making real decisions with the sometimes inexplicable Frankfords but Gawn Grainger’s manservant is a master of dry humour and I did like Sebastian Armesto’s seductive intruder.
The most Mitchell-like moments are the scene changes: cold light bathes the stage as a multitude of servants appear to rearrange furniture at bustling speed whilst the principals move in slow motion around them, sometimes in reverse, sometimes playing echoes of scenes over and over again. As well as suggesting a curious passage of time, it also reminds us of the importance of the serving classes here, their interjections at key moments of the play are vital.
All in all, there’s no doubting that there is a frustrating beginning that threatened to overwhelm with dullness, but A Woman Killed with Kindness came close to finding its way as it progressed and by opening night, it may yet get there. It looks stunning, the set design is just excellent and the cast breathes quality. Too often though Mitchell’s influence is too strong, confusing instead of clarifying and it veers too close to the clinical, lacking a beating heart that would deepen the tragedy: that said, I’m not 100% sure it is present in the original writing. One to make up your own mind on I think, I’m wavering on a 2/2.5.