by Thomas Middleton & William Rowley
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe, London
Sunday 18th January 2015, 14.30
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Music composer: Claire van Kampen
Vermandero’s household, a castle in Alicante
Hattie Morahan as Beatrice-Joanna
Liam Brennan as Vermandero, her father
Simon Harrison as Alsemero, who she falls in love with
Peter Hamilton Dyer as Jasperino, Alsemero’s friend
Thalissa Teixeria as Diaphanta, female servant to Beatrice
Trystan Gravelle as Deflores, man servant to Beatrice
Tom Stuart as Alonzo, Beatrice’s fiancé
Joe Jameson as Tomaszo, Alonzo’s brother
Phil Whitechurch as Alibius, doctor and asylum owner
Sarah Macrae as Isabella, his wife
Pearce Quigley as Lollio, overseer of asylum
Brian Ferguson as Antonio, feigning madness
Adam Lawrence as Franciscus, feigning madness
Matt Doherty as tall madman (+ servant to Vermandero).
Beatrice-Joanna (Hattie Morahan)
We had never seen The Changeling before nor read it, though we knew its current reputation as one of the liveliest and best Jacobean plays. It dates from 1622, and Middleton had collaborated with Shakespeare years earlier. It’s format was innovative (as was the last Wanamaker choice, Knight of The Burning Pestle) in that it appears to be two separate plays taking it in turns, right up to the end, where the link becomes clear, and the logic of two contrasting pieces is revealed. It was taken that Middleton did the noble household plot, while William Rowley did the madhouse plot, though they must have worked closely.
We read online synopses, foolishly, as they were incredibly confusing. In listing characters, I’ve stopped just using names: Vermandero, Alsemero, Alonzo, but added their role. Programmes could take note! We should just have waited and read the synopsis in the programme which had all you needed to know. Also, a compliment to this production is that you could have just watched it with zero prior knowledge and made perfect sense of the plot. That’s high praise for convoluted Jacobean tragedies. It is also a very good play in its own right, with its mix of tragedy and comedy.
Basically Beatrice-Joanna (or from now on just Beatrice) is the centre. She’s engaged to Alonzo by her father, but meets Alsemero and falls in love, or possibly falls in lust. She needs to get rid of Alonzo, and her creepy ‘loathsome’ servant, Deflores (a joke on deflowering, no doubt) agrees to murder Alonzo. DeFlores has psoriasis. Alonzo’s arrival at the castle is extremely funny – he just walks on, says nothing, but exudes “I am the fall guy.” I don’t know how he did it, but he did. But Deflores wants a reward for the murder. Beatrice, who finds him repulsive, assumes the reward is Alonzo’s ring (which he cut off with the finger attached) or money, but the reward he wants is her maidenhead. She has to submit or all will be revealed.
Beatrice-Joanna and DeFlores
The parallel story is the madhouse. Alibius is the doctor who runs it, and is terrified that his young wife, Isabella, will be seduced by a younger man, so keeps her locked up. Lollio is the overseer who runs the place (and the most memorable character in the play). Two young lords, Antonio and Franciscus decide to feign being madmen in order to get into the asylum because they fancy Isabella. We can see that Lollio, like Deflores, has his designs on his mistress too (as in Master & Mistress). This production plays the madhouse as intended with raving madmen … no PC-ing at all. That’s the right way to do it.
Back to the castle. Beatrice has a problem, facing her wedding night. She is no longer a virgin. This will be discovered (these were the days when bloodied sheets were hung on balconies to prove virginity after all). She has an apothecaries cabinet, and discovers in a book, a pregnancy testing potion and a virginity testing potion. Her servant, Diaphanta, tries out the potion, and proves her own virginity in a most hilarious scene. Beatrice watches, so she can fake it. She does fake the test – Alsemero has become suspicious. But she can’t fake the wedding night, so tells Diaphanta to take her place. Listening to the consummation through the door, she becomes jealous and has Deflores murder Diaphanta too and burn her body by setting a fire.
Alonzo. DeFlores is about to take him on a castle tour from which he will not return
Meanwhile, Tomaszo, the brother of murdered Alonzo, is getting threatening to all and sundry. The wedding celebration is three days long, and the threads start to pull together … the madmen have been booked as “entertainment” to prance about. Suspicion for the murder falls on Antonio and Franciscus who had fled the castle earlier to feign madness and get to Isabella. The parallel is that Isabella, in the extremity of the mad house, resists sexual temptation, while Beatrice, the rich girl, does not. Beatrice has grown to love the thing she loathed, Deflores, by the end. She has become as loathsome as he appeared to her.
It’s a Jacobean tragedy. No prizes for guessing how it ends.
Some thoughts on the production. Accent is used a lot and to effect … sometimes. Deflores uses a Welsh accent … and this is always a theatrical cliché … to suggest a manipulative pervy character. We know from the number of times Shakespeare used “Look you!” and Welsh characters, that Elizabethan London had that perception (of my mother’s place of birth, I hasten to add) and I’m convinced Shakespeare had a Welsh actor, or an actor who did comic Welsh. The “Look you!” carries over to plays where Welshness is not stated. There’s no script evidence that Deflores was intended to be Welsh … and after all they’re all “Spanish” in the play. So it’s a production choice. It works superbly, I’m almost afraid to say. On the other hand Vermandero and Antonio have Scottish accents, to no purpose. So just the actors’ natural accents. We saw Liam Brennan (Vermandero) in both Twelfth Night and Richard III and he retained his Scots accent to good effect as Orsino. In the year of the Scottish referendum, I definitely notice Scots accents hardening … there is less accommodation to standard English. Having seen both David Tennant and James McAvoy on stage, both were on recent Graham Norton chat shows, and both were going for the much stronger end of their accents. Both have choice about where to place their accent on a spectrum.
The “star” of this show at least is Lollio, played by Pearce Quigley, with his normal light Northern accent. Pearce Quigley was Bottom in 2013’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Globe production and it was a delight to see him again. He epitomizes Mark Rylance’s statement that the clowns in Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre were stars, and known to the audience. As Rylance said, there is no way that they would have simply parroted a script. They added, they worked the audience. Quigley is a master at this. Clowns are really difficult parts to bring off as the puns don’t work so well in 2015. This worked perfectly – the repeated line when the audience fails to react to a pun is great work. Lollio dominates the stage whenever he’s there. On the Sunday we saw him, there was a sudden connection between the two plots. Alonzo had been murdered in the previous scene, and the blood had been quickly mopped up between scenes. Not enough. Lollio slipped, went arse over elbow on it, and got a laugh. But the sort of laugh that stops because you don’t know whether it was deliberate or accidental. On balance we thought accidental. He handled it with aplomb whatever. When I compile my “Best of 2015” I hope I remember how good this was … I doubt we’ll see a better comic role in Renaissance drama this year.
The Wanamaker Playhouse really is just candle-lit
Hattie Morahan as Beatrice-Joanna gets her name on the fliers, with justification as the play is “about her” and she is the changeling. It’s a great role – you get to do lustful, murderous, jealous, and also extremely funny in the potions scene. She does it brilliantly.
We discussed it at length driving home. There is a caveat. it goes back to last year, comparing the Cheek by Jowl modernized sexed up ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore with the Wanamaker period production. Both productions were in my Top Ten of 2014, though Cheek by Jowl was further from the play, but truer to the original spirit. Cheek by Jowl did The Changeling in 2006, and I wish I’d seen their take. Like ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore there’s a central female figure. Southwark in 1622 came to mind … one doubts that the prostitutes were hidden away or presented modestly. This is an era where several English cities had streets named Gropecunt Lane, though in Poole the alley behind the warehouse on the docks is named more nicely, as Paradise Street. We thought that maybe some of the freedom to go aside and if you like, modernize, that Lollio had and exploited so well, could have been extended to Beatrice-Joanna. This character is lustful, driven by sex, largely up for it, though not with Deflores initially. Alicante isn’t far from Benidorm … though there it’s the visitors who behave lustfully, not the locals. It needed, we felt, a touch of Benidorm. But it is a period production, so not much could be done with costume. It had to stay within certain confines then, but I’d like to see a freer take on the play.
Beautifully atmospheric, slightly avant-garde violins. The violinists get to walk on stage to cover the inevitable candle lighting and candle putting out required at the Wanamaker Playhouse.
We didn’t see any halftime leavers this time – an issue at the Wanamaker Playhouse with those backless benches both the previous times. I can see why the Globe is so defensive about them. You kind of get used to them. Excruciating discomfort the first time becomes extreme discomfort the second time and merely ‘uncomfortable’ the third time. But the first experience is pretty bad.
As ever at The Globe, it would be six stars if it didn’t stop at five. Clear, informative, well-written. Nice “series” cover too.