(This review was previously posted on 14 July. It was temporarily removed because its author had mistakenly attended a preview of the production — the official press performance was not scheduled until 19 July. Lucy Kellett attended the press show and her review is available here. Sincere apologies to the National Theatre from Huntley Dent and the Editor.)
Too clever by halves. Although T.S. Eliot was describing Marlowe’s once popular, now buried play, The Jew of Malta, when he dubbed it a savage farce, the phrase is a wide paintbrush for Jacobean tragedy, whose absurd motivations, wildly outsized emotions and sheer body count tempt us to burst out laughing. One of the breeziest writers of the day, Thomas Heywood, shuffled genres like a card sharp, and there’s no reason to believe that he took his most famous tragedy, A Woman Killed With Kindness (1603) too seriously. There’s not much reason to revive it either, except as a study in stage contraptions antecedent to the great age of folderol bien fait in the Victorian theater, which gave us masterly contrivers like Scribe, Sardou, and the like.
To prove me wrong, director Katie Mitchell has tried to make more of A Woman Killed With Kindness than Heywood put into it. The result is exasperating in its obvious failings, so let me get them out of the way. Much of the dialogue is directed at the scenery and away from the audience; it is delivered rapidly and often without clear diction. Sitting in the front stalls, I had to cup my ear to catch whole speeches. I have no idea what the back rows deciphered. Scenes in dumbshow have been added, mostly with a heavy hand (as when an unhappily married couple enter their house, exchange an air kiss, and exit, only to repeat the same sequence twice more). Finally, there is constant motion on stage as servants busily clear tables, run up and down stairs, walk aimlessly in slow motion, and otherwise keep us from attending the actors properly, abetted by irritating noises offstage, such as two infants bawling for long stretches, seemingly forever.
Since Mitchell is a brilliant innovator who has carte blanche at the National, one should give her the benefit of the doubt, and I’ll do that as soon as I describe the melodrama that Heywood merrily tossed off in, say, a fortnight between his parallel careers as actor, producer, pamphleteer, and poet. (He brags in a preface that he either wrote or had a “main finger” in two hundred plays, which means that he wrote as fast as he could think. If only his thoughts were better.) A Woman Killed With Kindness is a domestic tragedy, academically speaking, bridging the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, although this sub-genre had roots in the Renaissance. “Domestic” means that we are in present-day Yorkshire in a grand house owned by a member of the upper middle class, Master John Frankford (Paul Ready), who presents his new bride Anne (Liz White) to his circle of friends before they retire to their bedchamber for the first time.
Heywood would be the last person to scratch his head and ask, “What can I say in this scene besides the usual bawdry about honeymoon nights?” Instead, he gives us double doses of double entendres, yet in the midst of the cavalier crudeness, which is actually fairly mild, an aristocratic wedding guest, Sir Charles Mountford (Leo Bill), delivers a touchingly sincere toast to the bride:
First, her birth
Is noble, and her education such
As might become the daughter of a prince;
Her own tongue speaks all tongues, and her own hand
Can teach all strings to speak in their best grace,
From the shrill’st treble to the hoarsest base.
Being a sentimentalist, Heywood extends this speech a dozen lines more, and he’s too lazy to think of better wording than the awful “hoarsest base.” Get used to it. By any measure this is a gifted hack, Neil Simon in doublet and hose, capable of clever Rube Goldberg machinery to trap his characters in but only occasional spasms of feeling. (Did he blush to see Hamlet and King Lear, written around this time? Probably not.)
Naturally, the instant a woman’s virtue is praised, this being Jacobean tragedy, she will turn into a round-heeled strumpet in less than five minutes. Anne betrays her husband with Wendoll (Sebastian Armesto, who bravely bore the news that he would be playing his climactic scene stark naked), a seeming friend to Frankford who is obviously a bounder; the servants see through him immediately.
As we spin through the machinations of catching out the lewd couple, Heywood shamelessly enjoys himself. Then he turns pious once the lady is exposed. Her punishment is to be banished from the house and her two children. But her husband is kind enough to provide Anne with a fine dwelling, lands, servants, and all the comforts of life. She reacts with extreme (and unbelievable) remorse, starving herself — in record time, as it turns out, since the next scene brings about her death, after a lachrymose reconciliation with Frankford. She dies upon a kiss, and he utters her epitaph: Here lies she whom her husband’s kindness kill’d.
Well, maybe, but the salient question is whether Mitchell’s production didn’t kill the whole play first. To get behind the madness and find her method, I should mention that the director’s specialty is to deconstruct theater into its moving parts, disorienting and even alienating the audience in the interest of making them truly pay attention. Hence the constant busyness, irritating sound effects, and aiming the dialogue at the back wall. This post-Brechtian approach has worked brilliantly in the past, as when Mitchell brought vivid theatrical life to two novels, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, where the actors changed props and costumes on stage, videoed themselves, and provided sound effects. In this production nothing so radical is attempted, if the bustling servants shuffling furniture around echoes Mitchell’s former productions.
But why Heywood? Certainly not for the text, with its highly questionable merits (he provides an epilogue, here omitted, in which he shrugs off the “sundry taste” of those who like his work as well as those who hate it). A clue lies in the stage setup, which is divided in half between two households, each provided with a prominent staircase. As domestic life proceeds in the Frankford household, simultaneously the play’s important subplot proceeds on the other half of the stage. While one set of characters is speaking, the other set stays on stage, acting in dumbshow. This deliberate mirroring forces the audience to be distracted and more focused at the same time.
The subplot concerns Sir Charles and his sister, Susan Mountford (Sandy McDade), who are caught up in their own travails over virtue and marriage. Sir Charles makes a swaggering wager on his hunting hawk and hounds with another country gentleman, Sir Francis Acton (Nick Fletcher), and when the wager goes sour, he rashly kills one of Sir Francis’s best servants (never, never accept invitations where they shoot the help). This leads to a complicated, semi-ludicrous revenge plot. Sir Charles is hounded by the law, twice imprisoned, twice released, and eventually beggared. As it happens, however, Acton falls madly in love with Susan when he sets eyes on her, and he pledges to drop his vengeance if he can have her. In a world where morality is a toy of the rich and lascivious, Sir Charles is willing to prostitute his sister to avoid bankruptcy, just as some people today would prostitute their mothers to get a window seat in business class. She valiantly holds out, along the model of the Roman martyr Lucretia, but then, with no apparent motivation, Susan does an about-face and vows to turn hate to love. I hope somebody is following this winding road.
Heywood’s contrast between two women is fairy-tale simple, yet Mitchell sees more in it. Hence the divided houses playing out scenes of passion and betrayal, chastity and nobility, at the same time. Given the far remove of King James, Mitchell sets the play in a louche 1920s, or somewhat earlier, a canny choice since flappers moved through the same drawing rooms as late Victorians. A nice shadow zone for shifting mores, then. To seal the feminist link between Anne and Susan, the epitaph about a woman killed by her husband’s kindness is snatched from Frankford and bestowed on Susan as she marches out the door, irony waving aloft. The moral? The conventionally perfect wife is destroyed for one misstep, while the liberated woman who chose her own fate, sexually speaking, holds her head up high.
Anyone can be forgiven for “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it,” but for those who could block out the annoyances, the play was as raffishly entertaining as Heywood meant it to be. Among the actors, a handful refused to garble their lines and won the audience’s gratitude. Chief among them was the likable, long-suffering husband of Paul Ready and the sympathetic strumpet of Liz White — they did more to elevate Heywood’s Kleenex-thin characters than all the stage trickery. We got to see Lilian Gish vamp into Theda Bara and back again. Throw in a juicy death scene, with a wheelchair no less, and you’ve got more than chopped liver. Baked ham, definitely.