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Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Theatre - Women Beware Women - National Theatre

Star rating – 8/10

I was not quite sure what to expect from this revival of a Thomas Middleton play from the time of Shakespeare directed by Marainne Elliott. And I got much more than I bargained for - in a very good way. This is play about lust, sin, corruption, revenge and wickedness. So not one for those fence sitters then.

Set in Medici Florence, the set at the Olivier Theatre is magnificent - cleverly portraying the splendour of the Duke’s palace and the poverty of a poor banker’s clerk and his widowed mother at the slight turn of the magnificent stage. The action begins with Leantio, the banker’s clerk in question, returning home to his mother to show off his beautiful new bride Bianca, who has given up her family’s wealth to be with her beloved new husband. But as ever, the course of true love does not run at all smoothly, as Leantio has to go away on business, leaving his young wife pray to the passing fancy of the great Duke.

And meanwhile at the court of the Duke, the pressing task is to find a husband for Isabella, niece of the widow Livia. Guardiano suggests that his stupid, oafish Ward might fit the bill, but Livia has inexplicably other ideas, and deceitfully persuades Isabella that her uncle, who has unnatural designs on her, is not really her uncle, and so she embarks on a passionate affair with him, whilst marrying the hapless Ward.

Harriet Walter is the undoubted star of the show, superb as the ruthless and hard, viper like Livia. She plots to get the naive Bianca into the clutches of the Duke, and proceeds to carefully and cunningly engage Bianca’s mother in law in a game of chess whilst the Duke rapes Bianca. This is one of the best scenes in the play – two women trading moves and innuendo, one so obsessed in the sport that she is totally oblivious to the outrage going on under the same roof.

The staging is superb, the costumes divine, the jazz music perfect for the plot. There is a fantastically sensuous tango between Bianca and her adulterous uncle Hippolito, which totally draws the audience in. There is great comedy between the Ward (played brilliantly for laughs by Harry Melling) and his equally crude and lewd friend Sordido. The evil Livia is herself drawn into a doomed love with the cuckolded Leantio. And the final bloodbath is a fitting climax to a fantastic treat for the senses. A sublime feast of a play.

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