BWW Review: WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Following the lacklustre reception of The Taming of the Shrew, Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women opens in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as part of the Globe's continuing 'She Wolves and Shrews' season. Where Shakespeare's play showed a woman tamed, however, Middleton explores the unbridled rage and fallout of women scorned.
When the young Leantio arrives home with his new bride, Bianca, whom he has ferried away from her family, he gives his mother one imperative: Bianca must remain hidden. It's a shame, then, that Leantio lives next to a family that seems taken straight from a soap opera: Livia fancies her brother, who has a reciprocated, incestuous crush with his niece, Isabella, who is to be engaged to a petulant ward (phew). They'll do anything to get ahead, and when the Duke of Florence spots Bianca, Livia and her family plot to help him secure this new bride and thus curry favour.
The play has been translated to the 1980s, a decision by director Amy Hodge that works very well. Middleton's plotting and revenge lends itself to the tones of excess, faux glamour and suave power plays seen in the films and television of that time.
However, one issue does not make sense: why are Leantio and his mother neighbours to Livia and her family? Their costumes clearly imply they're of different classes, and a later scene has the mother polishing the silver, suggesting she might be a cleaner to her neighbours. Livia's insistence on calling her "neighbour", however, somewhat confuses, though this is a minor gripe.
Joanna Scotcher's stylish design consists of a black marble set with a golden trim. This is complemented by Jim Fortune's score, which, with musical direction from Joley Cragg, uses a jazz theme. Jazz's modulations capture the play's unpredictable narrative and characters' backhanded plotting, and the overall presentation of the show is pleasingly effective.
Given the conviction of Harvey Weinstein this week, Middleton's depiction of Bianca surviving her rape by the Duke and deciding the easiest way to survive is to stay silent feels chillingly apt. Whilst Hodge's direction of the piece tends towards comedy, these darker scenes are malicious and uncomfortable, but respectfully handled. It's a world where women must literally stand on a pedestal and have their virginity checked.
There are also many fine performances. Tara Fitzgerald as Livia harkens back to a Hollywood grand dame, commanding the stage and the men around her with a throaty, attractive zeal. Olivia Vinall as the briefly innocent Isabella also seduces, Gloria Onitiri provides wonderful singing and underhand actions as Guardiano, and Thalissa Teixeira is a wilful Bianca.
The wedding masque that ends the play is done with an amount of bloodlust and violence that is to be expected from a Jacobean revenge tragedy, and one can't help but wonder if it inspired Game of Thrones in any way. But here Fortune's music becomes overindulgent and repetitive, the jazzy death knell undoing the female vengeance.
It's a shame that at the play's end Hodge's production loses focus, for this is otherwise a sound piece. Realising the brutality of the Renaissance world and our own today, this game of human chess shows how simultaneously helpless and powerful a Queen can be if facing another Queen, especially when the pawns around them also want to bring them down.
Women Beware Women is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 18 April.
Photograph credit: Johan Persson.