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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Directed by Amy Hodge, designed by Joanna Scotcher with Scenic Artist Emily Carne, Aline David choreographs, Jim Fortune’s jazzy composition evokes the eighties. Paul Russell and Cleo Maynard are Candle Consultant and Technician, with Fight Directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown. Costume Supervisor’s Sydney Florence, Megan Cassidy Head of Wardrobe, Pam Humpage Head of Wigs, Hair and Make-Up, with Milliner Jane Smith and Head of Voice Tess Dignan with Voice coach Alison Bomber, Nina Steiger Text Consultant and Giles Block on Text. Carol Pestridge is Stage Manager.

Musicians are Joley Cragg Director/Percussion Kate Daisy Grant Cell/Piano/Vocals, Ross Hughes Double Bass/Wind, Nick Pym Strings. Till April 18th.


And we shall play a game of chess. In Trump Towers with Harvey and Donald, or here with Livia and the Widow. With women from the 1620s and 1980s treated as commodities, transactional pawns – hold that trope – and an upskirting scene, Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women is overdue for revival. Amy Hodge’s Wanamaker production continues a trend of recent productions to eschew Jacobean settings and torch-bear Jacobean candlelight into a later dark.

The 1980s might be too early for women to declare #MeToo, though disturbingly it’s ‘the deadly snares/That women set for women without pity’ that lynchpin twice-widowed Livia ultimately laments, finding too late she’s not the only woman who can scheme. Importantly in this production Livia’s desires and vulnerability are highlighted to round out the tragic. 

Certainly, though masterly, it’s difficult to navigate the play’s unique tone of tragedy, maybe-misogyny and farce, and consequently we see it – and Middleton – far too rarely.

So it’s one merit of this production to show this scheming as necessity, even victimhood. Though Livia’s self-delighting ‘Who shows more craft to undo a maidenhood?’ complicates this chequerboard of night and day with a ferocious sense that Livia – who should be president of something – is a frustrated politician, a chessboard queen.

Middleton’s apotheosis of his obsession with the game came next after Women Beware Women, though A Game at Chess in 1624 went too far satirizing the Spanish ambassadorial visit, and Middleton’s career as dramatist ended. James I’s apotheosis as rapist Duke in the earlier work, performed two years before, sailed pretty close even so. With these two plays and his previous collaboration with Rowley in The Changeling, Middleton was frustratingly at his zenith.

There’s a curious genome rippling through these plays too: the objectification of women, how when abused they turn to what they loathe (dodgy doesn’t cover it) and the carapace of role-play hardening to chess moves. Only – pawns can checkmate more than kings.

So it’s what’s shifted since the last major staging of this play – Marianne Elliott’s 2010 National production – that Hodge underscores. Elliott’s gleaming vehicle, marred only by the finale’s silent carousel of death, stayed closer to what Middleton’s contemporaries would recognize, with Harriet Walter’s gleeful Livia. After #MeToo – without negating other readings – there’s a shift worth reviewing.

We open with young impoverished Liantio (Paul Adeyefa) in a mutually lustful clinch with his snatched bride, Thalissa Teixeira’s Bianca. From a rich family she gave up everything. Liantio enjoins his mother (Stephanie Jacob, later the Cardinal) to help hide Bianca from family and predators: it’s the main use of the gallery this time (where the musicians are), along with a stage trap door. Mightn’t work if you peep at processions though: they peep back. Simon Kunz’s Duke of Florence wants access.

That comes after Tara Fitzgerald’s Livia – his future bawd – proves an adept. Horrified her favourite niece Olivia Vinall’s Isabella is to be sacrificed by her father to Helen Cripps’ idiot brattish Ward as marriage bait, she reconsiders her younger brother’s incestuous lust for Isabella a lesser evil. Persuading previously horrified Isabella into believing her real father’s someone else, she speeds her straight into her real uncle’s bed: he seems infinitely preferable. Vinall’s tonal shift here is rapid but there’s a reason. Daon Broni’s lubricious Hippolito can’t believe his luck.

Fitzgerald’s superb, both self-delighting in power and desire, arching her back at both as she purrs deep mezzo and flicks to a higher register in mock innocence or mock surprise.

When you see Cripps’ performance as future husband, alongside mentor Rachael Spence’s Sordido, you see why Isabella chooses an older man. They enter in entitlement tennis apparel and entitlement is key to oblivious sexual abuse: Cripps takes swinging and swingeing to new lows. Up on a pedestal Isabella’s not so much idolized as put up for slave auction, prodded and looked up: Vinall’s rictus smile is a study in what prospective Miss Worlds endured. With Cripps the Ward’s brattishness conceals vicious misogyny.

Vinall’s sovereign as the initially revolted then seduced young woman turning increasingly to sophisticated havoc – vocally she places Isabella as someone awoken by revulsion and passion and revulsion again, outrage and agency.

Ironically – given his nephew’s being cuckolded by Isabella – it’s Gloria Onitiri’s smooth Guardiano who gets Fitzgerald’s Livia, schooled in enabling incest, her commission: procure mewed-up, objectified Bianca for the Duke.

Diverting Jacob’s garrulous Widow with a chess game with real people is one of the production’s choreographed trademarks. Guardiano takes Bianca to see the ‘monument’. It’s no seduction scene, but candlelit terrors as flames descend symbolically to waist level, a double pillar of fire Bianca can’t escape, as Kunz’s Duke closes in. Teixeira’s wild flight and mimed rape is done with palpable terror. If the rest of the production’s crisis-points could pitch like this it’d be an overwhelming experience.

It’s the most disturbing scene but not the creepiest. Teixeira’s Bianca is visibly traumatised, informing her subsequent reaction to her returning husband. Bianca’s plausibly in Stockholm syndrome to the Duke, re-awoken too to the moneyed life she forsook for poor Lianto. To add insult the Duke’s brother Jacob’s Cardinal pops up to damn this. Middleton’s oft-cited strain of damnation rubs uneasily against his modernity, and here it’s almost incidental.

This production points up how easily things might have run different. After Livia vampishly seduces Lianto (realising she’s being premature, she deliciously changes tack) it’s Lianto who spills this liaison in an acrimonious encounter with his now-removed wife. Murder and revenge are sprung. Lianto falls first (by outraged hypocrite Hippolito) setting in train plots by Isabella, Bianca, Livia, the Ward and Guardiano.

Owing to stage machinery, often a feature of the tragedy’s climax, there’s a checkmate slowness in the climactic bloodbath: much happens in a trance. Only Teixeira gets the opportunity to enact the denouement’s tragic force in this lean-minced version lasting two-and-a-half hours with interval.

Jacob in scarlet is a delight, just as believable as in her fussy brown widowhood. Proclaiming ‘Lust is bold, and will have vengeance speak, ere it be controlled’ you see a will to power through fear overtaken by a brother’s trick of marrying his sin and everyone’s plots leaving a void only the Cardinal’s left to wonder on. And, irritatingly, the Ward.

Joanna Scotcher’s unfussy black set blocks out the Wanamaker’s baroquerie in favour of a scaffold effect not much clambered on, with occasional props and use of the trap-door. Startlingly though the masque finale reverts to grand Inigo Jones effects with a descending throne (Livia’s) and Grecian costumery, not 1980s at all. Aline David choreographs the routines here and earlier, down to the Ward’s jerky thrusts with a game of tennis. Jim Fortune’s jazzy composition sort of evokes the eighties with some plangent notes, piano glitterings and stabs in the dark.

Wil Johnson’s Fabritio harrumphs well and luckily his strong voice is severally deployed. There’s well-defined performances from Spence (the Ward’s oleaginous tutor, doubling his misogyny), Broni, Onitri, the marble-conscienced Kunz, and Adeyefa who mixes appealing warmth with fatal petulance. Jacob sharply defines her contrasting roles, and Cripps’ Ward is a nasty surprise trying to be natty.

Teixeira Vinall and Fitzgerald though carry the emotional weight. Teixeira’s shift from bliss to terror to numbed compromise and scorn to stark loss is moving and shocking. Vinall’s slow descent from the pedestal of herself is equally absorbing. Vocally both own a clarity and truth that make you wish for a grander apotheosis. Fitzgerald riding to a more humanly-lit fit of poisonous vapours in a goddess’s chariot is wholly believable: quicksilver passions vying with quicksilver and trickery itself.

Played straighter than some recent Wanamaker productions – because less familiar – there’s a sense the space needs handling when passions are unleashed. It’s been done. Hodge just needs to let it rip at the point where intricate plotting tears to agonies. And this is still a stylish, timely production which redefines how we experience Middleton.