Women Beware Women, by Thomas Middleton at the National Theatre of Great Britain

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Harriet Walter (Livia) and Samuel Barnett (Leantio), photo by Simon Annand

Women Beware Women
By Thomas Middleton
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre of Great Britain
(Finished on 4 July)

Directed by Marianne Elliott
Cast & Creative

Motiveless malignity. It’s hard to transport one’s mind back far enough to empathize with Jacobean drama, when immorality masqueraded as the It Thing, as if a casual rape was merely the aperitif before fine dining. Today we have summer movies, admittedly, where mass carnage goes down well with popcorn and no harm done. We aren’t frightened or disgusted by how many people the Terminator terminates. Two minutes after leaving the theatre we return to our moral selves. Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (1621), in a stirring revival at the National Theatre, affords an equally mindless vacation from morality. But it wants to be more adult. With an aristocratic audience to please and no Hollywood ratings agency, Middleton could add salaciousness and bawdry to the max. The popcorn has been sprinkled with wormwood and gall.

Middleton, a master of laissez-faire violence, was corrosively cynical. The National Theatre’s Women Beware Women is a follow-up to The Revenger’s Tragedy a couple of seasons back. The two are considered the summa of Middleton’s dramatic art. But there’s a good deal less dazzlement in the verse, I think, perhaps because The Revenger’s Tragedy came fifteen years earlier, in 1606, when the playwright was still in his twenties and vying for fame. Both plays take place in Italy around the time of the Medicis, a stock setting in the day for licentious gamboling and blood feuds. But where the first play culminates in a duke being poisoned by kissing the skull of a woman he once ravished, Women Beware Women offers the milder shock of a game of chess where every move is a sly double entendre as a rape takes place offstage.

A courtier smirks at the thought of Bianca, the honest wife being violated upstairs. He seems to voice Middleton’s own smugness:

It’s a witty age,
Never were finer snares for women’s honesties
Than are devis’d in these days; no spider’s web
Made of a daintier thread than are now practis’d.

The plot is all witty snares and clever devices. Cleverness becomes a saving grace, however, when the vocabulary incessantly repeats whore, strumpet, and bawd and the mood consists of a pendulum swing between lust and revenge. Ever since a noted essay in which T.S. Eliot ranked Middleton just behind Shakespeare, his pungent, manic versifying has been admired, but Eliot was quick to point out that as a dramatist Middleton had no purpose. Why, then, revive his plays? In Women Beware Women every character is despicable. Since they all get dispatched in a general bloodbath-cum-housecleaning, there’s no reason to view them as anything but vicious mannequins—and yet.

The “and yet” is raised by the brilliant Marianne Elliott, who has turned into the go-to director for problem plays. She performed wonders with All’s Well That Ends Well last year, compared to which this play is piffle. But Elliott was attracted by its feminist possibilities. The title is a command, better understood by inserting a comma: Women, beware women. It’s a clear warning, but with a hidden riddle inside. Why should women be the enemy of their own sex? In the misogynist ethos of the play, men seem like enemy enough. The “good” husband Leantio begins the play with doting amorous praise of his new bride Bianca, the only virtuous speech made by any male except for the late introduction of a windy, boring Cardinal who serves to sprinkle pieties on the final massacre. But Leantio has no genuine virtue: he stole his wife from her family in Venice, carting her off to Florence chiefly to spend a week in bed. When Bianca is spied standing on her balcony by the Duke, who automatically wants to rape her, Leantio feels no impulse to pity her but only to pity himself. Because he can’t exact revenge, he decides to profit from her new position as the Duke’s favoured mistress. Indeed, no matter how terribly women are treated – held as virtual slaves, bartered as sexual pawns, betrayed on a whim, and murdered for spite – the men think only of themselves. Every encounter is a transaction with women as coin of the realm.

In itself that’s a feminist point, but Elliott goes deeper and subtler. She spies a sliver of hope for liberation. The women in the play seek their own vengeance, a kind of satanic parity in sin. The critical scene comes when Bianca stumbles down a sweeping staircase after being raped, clutching her skirts and doubled over with shame. She sees that she is ruined, that her husband will blame and reject her. But in a thrice she concludes that she can survive by turning as cynical and mercenary as everyone else. The excellent Lauren O’Neil wrings sorrow and shock out of this turn around, choking back sobs and tossing off bawdy bravado in the same breath. She has been directed with great psychological skill, I think. Rather than blunt-force feminism, we are made to see in a human sense that collaboration may be the only survival tactic a victim has left.

Evil becomes a kind of existential choice after good has been murdered. Every woman in the play understands that she is caught up in a cruel sport. The most self-aware is also the cruellest – Livia, a rich widow who engineers the infamous scene in which she plays chess as a diversion while Bianca is raped. Her innocent opponent, Bianca’s mother-in-law, says, “You are cunning at the game,” and Livia gloats, “It will be found so, ere I give you over.” The London critics quite rightly singled out Harriet Walter for her whippet-thin Livia, dressed in Dior black and sporting elegant helmet hair, to quote one reviewer, “like Mrs. Thatcher in her scary prime.” What wasn’t noticed was that the director cast Walter, soon to turn sixty, as a character who declares, “In faith, I’m nine and thirty, every stroke, wench.” Ageing her serves a good purpose. This Livia has reached the end of the race, facing the twin threats of ennui and remorse, and she becomes all the more pathetic when she falls madly in love with a much younger man – the betrayed Leantio (why not?). In this sexual jungle she can’t be a predator anymore, which Livia knows full well. She must resort to bribery, and although he seems more than a little repelled physically, Leantio, played by the oddly nerdy but affecting Samuel Barnett, accepts.

These are theatrical ploys to shift our sympathies away from a shrug and a small shudder of revulsion, the only reaction that Women Beware Women generally evokes. Elliott also loves splashy effects, and she uncorks a great one in the finale. The set is a looming black edifice that revolves, serving variously as court, banquet hall, salon, or street as occasion demands. Pretty standard issue in modern staging, and I kept wondering “Is this all there is?” But when it comes time to slaughter the characters wholesale, a troop of mimes dressed as angels in black with raven’s wings begins to dance, the turntable accelerates, and to the cool strains of Fifties lounge jazz, we get a dizzying ballet of murder, contrived with garrottings, stabbings, poisoned chalices, gang attacks, and mistaken identity whereby the loved one is mistakenly killed as the enemy. This dance macabre proceeds with such relish that Women Beware Women turns into what Eliot elsewhere called “a savage farce.” All the named characters die, leaving only the windy Cardinal behind to thank God for ending a “plague of sin.”

Not that anyone, least of all Middleton, thinks that the plague will ever cry finito. Much of the time the Olivier stage was shrouded in a thick layer of smoke as an emblem for the play’s suffocating spirit, and I’m sure we in the audience were expected to inhale it, reminding us of our own existential choices, the lurking perils to our survival, and a game that victimizes its players too soon after the last orgasm. To a cynic it’s a roundelay of perpetual lust. Maybe Livia is old enough to see it as the human condition.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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