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The Sam Wanamaker Theatres latest offering comes from the oft-overlooked genre of Jacobean tragedy. As this lively production demonstrates, these plays can be deeply compelling. We come back, fascinated, to the bizarre mixture of blood, poetry, grotesque humour, beauty and pathos that they offer. More than that, the sense, present in all of them, of a world that has lost its innocence, spinning out of control. The characters in these dramas are carried along by events, generally of their own making, and become victims of out-of-control passions. There is no sane authority that can be appealed to, no fixed point onto which they can hang. Perhaps it is this world that we recognise and feel a connection to. This is not to say that the plots or the characters lack anything; the two most popular tragedies in recent years – ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Duchess of Malfi – have all the hallmarks of satisfying tragic drama: protagonists afflicted by a fatal flaw that upsets the balance of their world; an emotional situation with which the audience can connect; a plot that proceeds with sense of dark inevitability; and a satisfying conclusion.
The Changeling has all of these qualities, but differs in some ways from our usual conception of ‘tragedy’; The atmosphere is one of domestic secrecy; Personal relationships, not court intrigue, are central to the plot; The setting is almost an irrelevance; And the play is so character-centric, so closely psychologically plotted, that it is almost a character study. Beatrice-Joanna, the protagonist, is set on marrying the man of her choice; to escape her current engagement she hires the repulsive and amoral De Flores to kill her fiancé. Unfortunately for her, De Flores is obsessed with her and demands sex in payment for the murder. Beatrice’s world spirals out of control as she engages in a desperate cover-up attempt that begets further murder. There is also a comic sub-plot set in a madhouse that reverses the events of the plot and plays it for laughs, acting as a sort of counterpoint to the main action.
The heart of the play is the relationship between Beatrice and De Flores. Beatrice insists that she hates him, but what are her real feelings? Is De Flores just a thug who seizes an opportunity to rape Beatrice, or are this strange couple made for each other? Or is the truth somewhere in between? Their actions during the play are like a grotesque parody of romance: De Flores kneels to Beatrice, pleading to be allowed to serve her, presents her with a ring (with her fiancés severed finger included) “wins her love” and manages to die with her. This suggestion of a twisted romance combines with Beatrice’s tragic transformation and growing self-knowledge.
The production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, (running from January until March), plays this story lightly. The comic sub-pot, often cut or reduced in favour of the tragedy, is handled with skill and attention. Isabella (Sarah MacRae) calmly side-steps the attentions of two disguised suitors (Adam Lawrence and Brian Ferguson) and Lollio, (Pearce Quigley) De Flores’s self-serving comic counterpart. Quigley is very good in the role, bringing just the right amount of lightness to the good-natured scheming. The madmen are disturbing enough to add to the atmosphere and the comedy comes primarily from Lollio and the suitors.
Beatrice (Hattie Morahan) is thoughtless and coquettish, but never sinister. Morahan plays her as a woman whose main flaw is her self-deception; while she tells herself that she loves Alsemero (Simon Harrison) “with the eyes of judgement” she is very clearly ruled by her heart. Harrison is very well cast as Alsemero, a man as upright and attentive to social mores as De Flores is not. Harrison’s ability to be both innocent and threatening makes Beatrice’s desperation to cover her actions more plausible. Harrison is genuinely frightening in the last scene, throwing his wife around in a haze of anger, betrayal and disappointed love. His shattered belief in her purity has become a flaw in itself. This is a nicely rounded portrayal of a character who might otherwise have been rather flat.
Morahans best moments come in Beatrices interaction with De Flores (Trystan Gravelle). Beatrice’s hatred of the ugly servant may be played as haughty disdain (as Helen Mirren did in the 1974 BBC adaptation) but Morahan plays it as uncontrollable and highly personal, a primal reaction that cracks her composure; She is incapable of self-control with regard to him. Face patterned with red birthmarks that give him a satanic look, Trystan Gravelle is more than equal to his role as the creepy, isolated but ruthless man tormented by his obsession. Gravelles De Flores is bitter, cool, wilful, logical, pragmatic, crude and utterly amoral but also bleakly funny, drawing several laughs in the early scenes. During his verbal sparring with Beatrice he does not give an inch, holding up with passive-aggressive good manners. The scene is electric as she desperately insults him, face contorted, all pretence of reserve dropped. These two are mutually obsessed, but have no point of contact. Whether Beatrice’s hatred hides something else hardly seems to matter. She does not understand her feelings, she cannot even try to. It is an important flaw essential to her character, and it is good to see it played so well.
De Flores’s coolness calcifies into menace in later scenes as power dynamics are reversed. He is horribly matter of fact with his demand when he comes to collect his payment from Beatrice. Stanley Baker played De Flores as desperate and self-pitying in this scene in the BBC adaptation, but Gravelle is coldly angry. He will have what he wants. He knows he is the right man for Beatrice. The element of rape in their relationship is horribly explicit. Beatrice (Morahan) reacts to him with a frightened emotional submission that resembles Stockholm syndrome. Her tentative displays of love for him are heart-breaking, although sympathy for her is likely to frizzle out with her thoughtless dispatching of a maid who knows too much (Thalissa Teixeira, irrepressible in this supporting role).
The staging by director Dominic Dromgoole is very good, and especially atmospheric during the ghost scenes. The dance scenes are beautifully choreographed and lit, with eerie and appropriate music by Claire van Kampen. There is only one complaint that can really be made about theatre this good, which is that it is theatre. The Sam Wanamaker playhouse has been infuriatingly coy about filming its performances, apart from the beautiful production of The Duchess of Malfi which was filmed and aired on BBC four last year. This is a beautiful, fresh production, and deserves to be recorded.