Directed by current British wunderkind Katie Mitchell, the play was reset into Edwardian middle class England. The stage was split into two halves, on each side the action of one woman being echoed by the other – even both trilling plaintive chords on the piano together as their stores interweave.
As the play speedily progressed, Charles’ increasingly erratic behaviour leads to debt, murder, imprisonment, impoverishment and disgrace –all of which are faced and lovingly supported by his long suffering sister. Meanwhile, Anne is overcome with passion not for her self satisfied husband, but for their house guest, the dashing Master Wendoll. ()
Further drama ensues as Anne’s infidelity is shockingly exposed and Susan is married to a man she detests in order for her brother to discharge a debt of honour. Anne is punished with a ‘kind’ act and sent to a neighbouring estate with her belongings, but barred from ever returning home, seeing her husband or her children again. It is this ‘kind’ act that leads to her death, as overcome with guilt she refuses to eat. Susan, speaking out finally, makes a final chilling declamation, that Anne was a ‘woman killed with kindness’.
A powerful story then and Mitchells’ direction showed the ways in which both women were simply pawns in the power struggles and web of control of the variety of men that surrounded them. This was perhaps most graphically shown when Susan, dressed in bridal gown and veil, attempted to flee the house before her ill fated wedding, and was grabbed and held back two or three times before emitting a banshee wail of grief and rage. After this sudden outburst she returns to the still doll-like frozen posture; not quite defeated but knowing her fight will never win. Hers was a masterful performance, showing adroitly the ennui, the frustrations and the difficulties of her situation.
Mitchell used some interesting choices to show the ebb and flow of time, with characters walking backwards up stairs, or being lifted and twirled from one spot to another, highlighting the flux- like state of the world in which the two protagonists were fairly sedentary. They often moved in slow motion in these sequences. This gave the piece a fluidity and natural rhythm which pulsed like a heartbeat through the production – sometimes gently, sometimes erratically, but always full of life –until the final tragic denouement. Time itself seemed to feature as a character, synchronizing with the lives of those on stage yet beyond their control – as Anne said at one point:
Of course for its time a domestic tragedy was quite groundbreaking, let alone having an unfaithful wife as a potential heroine. Mitchell’s direction allowed us to feel the full force of this impact.
Masterfully done this was a powerful and compelling piece of stage work with bravura acting from the two lead women and making the Jacobean contemporary.