By Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
At the Tom Patterson. Till September 23, 2017
Thomas Middleton (with an important assist from his collaborator William Rowley) was never one to turn away from psychological extremes or deviant behaviour. He was not famous for cascading poetry of mighty lines, yet his dramas caused immense anxiety for censor and public because the violence and psycho-sexual darkness were too bold, too raw. He dramatized incest, prostitution, male impotence, gender-bending. The Changeling was probably his greatest play, coming into much greater favour in our present century, perhaps because its sordid, macabre grain is closer to our age of candid pornography and mendacity. The main fable of a woman (Beatrice-Joanna) in love with a man (Alsemero) but betrothed to another spirals into chaos when the stakes turn deadly. She becomes trapped in a web of lust and deceit after she is seduced by the very murderer (De Flores) she has hired to kill her unwanted fiancé, and the horrible sequence of events (including a sub-plot where a male servant feigns madness to seduce an asylum-keeper’s wife) is stuffed with horror and enough moral darkness to elicit chills and revulsion. It is too easy to turn this drama into a banquet of mad depravity and murder, but it is more difficult to confront its black passions head-on though without losing scale or credibility. It is no exaggeration to state that Jackie Maxwell’s version (updated to Spain, 1938, towards the end of the Spanish Civil War) succeeds on almost every count.
Her production is strong on naturalism, but this naturalism (like Middleton’s) reveals characters at the mercy of their feelings and instincts. Middleton’s text has ironic black comedy layered over something truly ugly. In other words, the surface ripples with dark, disturbing undercurrents. Camellia Koo’s set design is clever yet simple: a row of Moorish arches, their tops of painted plaster and rock, their trunks turned to see-through skeleton metal. In addition to being able to frame various settings (church, asylum, garden, or ghastly cellar), and providing freedom to Bonnie Beecher’s lighting (with candles, torches, and moonlight) to filter through and achieve some stunning chiaroscuro or dramatic effects, the design becomes a visual emblem of Middleton’s skill in x-raying perverse human relationships: what you see at first is only a fragment of what lies beneath first sight. Composer and sound designer Debashis Sinha adds to the dramatic allure, but it is Maxwell’s direction and her cast’s general excellence that shines forth.
Without over-exploiting the Spanish Civil War setting, Maxwell knows how to use the politics for dramatic colour and scale. A giant puppet Franco wanders around the stage like a grotesque reminder of tyranny, and the rogues, vagabonds, and mad inmates of the asylum are mainly heard offstage rather than allowed to litter the stage with exaggerated lunacy. Keeping the movement fluent but freezing the ensemble when a key character has a monologue or aside, Maxwell’s assured direction elicits sharp performances, especially from Gareth Potter as Antonio (the duplicitous servant who lusts after Jessica B. Hill’s Isabella), Ijeoma Emesowum’s Diaphanta, Cyrus Lane’s Alsemero (dashing but vulnerable), and Tim Campbell’s Lollio (huskily intimidating). As for the two central characters, Mikaela Davies is beautifully silken in appearance as Beatrice-Joanna and it is easy to see how she could be a magnet for several men. She also suggests the woman’s hypocrisy and conflicted feelings towards the man who becomes the agent of her doom. However, her performance does not have enough weight or depth to go beyond the surface, and her pain and suffering in her death scene her sounds seem unmoored to any real devastation. She seems shallow beside Ben Carlson’s outstanding De Flores, his face disfigured, his soul inflamed, his wary suspicion evolving into an ecstasy of expectation and then into sheer psychosexual bravado and ugliness, especially in his exchanges with Beatrice, “the deed’s creature” whose illicit love has turned her coldly evil. Carlson’s De Flores is more chilling, however, in his ironic tones, but also in his silences. It is a vivid portrait at the centre of Maxwell’s well-wrought production, one that shows our present turbulent, rancid era facets of its own grimace.