FringeReview UK 2023
The closer Ricky Dukes sticks to the original, the more accessible, visceral, true this production is.
His Lazarus company prides itself on making classics accessible; though I can’t help feeling there’s a sly signalling cat-and-madman to those who know the work. It’s a production of jolts and smooth compulsions, stylised asides in your face and ritualised slaughter, added liturgical words and the strange sanctity of a couple standing on a table embracing an abyss.
DIRECTOR/ADAPTATION, Ricky Dukes, DESIGNER Sorcha Corcoran, LIGHTING DESIGNER Stuart Glover, SOUND DESIGNER Sam Glossop, COSTUME DESIGN Alice Neale, SONGS Bobby Locke, CREATIVE ASSISTANT Alice Carrol,
DEPUTY STAGE MANAGER Verena Pranstaetter, PROMOTION, REHEARSAL & PRODUCTION PHOTOGRAPHY Charles Flint, COMPANY PHOTOGRAPHY Adam Trigg, PRODUCER FOR LTC Gavin Harrington-Odedra, PR Georgina Carter for Chloe Nelkin Consulting
Till October 28th
Though billed as Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling, this lean and hungry two-hour production at Southwark’s Little adapted and directed by Ricky Dukes has Rowleyed his contribution – the famous mad scenes – out. Then, as if responding to a phantom ache, insinuated them back; sort of.
Dukes’ Lazarus company prides itself on making classics accessible; though I can’t help feeling there’s a sly signalling cat-and-madman to those who know the work. It’s a production of jolts and smooth compulsions, stylised asides in your face and ritualised slaughter, added liturgical words and the strange sanctity of a couple standing on a table embracing an abyss.
A 1622 play obsessed with female virginity before marriage – set by Sorcha Corcoran in a 1980s Dynasty or 2020s Succession boardroom cheek-by-jowl with audience as at the original 1622 Phoenix – is always going to spin on two worlds. There will be sprayed blood; certain spray-seats are designated.
The headlong plot without spoilers is briefly told. Though Beatrice-Joanna (Colette O’Rourke) promised already by her mother Vermandera (Emma Wilkinson Wright) to Alonzo de Piraquo (Alex Bird), sees family visitor Alsemero (Mylo Mcdonald) and they fall in love. Alsemero offers (and this is overlooked) to kill Alonzo in a fair duel, which he’ll easily win.
Beatrice-Joanna rightly spies danger that way. But a loathed scarred servant De Flores (Jamie O’Neill) who adores her and knows she scorns him, might oblige. There’s a price though. And murders, obsession with virginity (Alsemero again, hardly blameless) leads to potions, imitation symptoms, bed-swaps with virgins and denouement.
Middleton’s obsession with ancient hellfire juxtaposed with a striking modernity – especially psychologically – is superbly foregrounded. Both halves begin with church: where Beatrice-Joanna and Alsemero spy each other first, against added liturgical words.
First Mikko Juan blesses the place. Later, in full wedding regalia, many holy words are added, particularly “male and female” and exhortations to multiply. (And judicious single use of F and C words.) Anyone would think we’re at the Tory party conference, asked to do our bit for the race. Dukes is setting up fun for those who catch it. It’s delicious, but Dukes is underscoring a serious point, and brings this side of Middleton home as few have.
What this has to do with boardrooms bar selling a marriageable daughter like so much unstamped meat (“stamped silver” is a phrase here) is anyone’s guess. No-one cares really. Table and smart-suits anchor the set, but Middleton, whilst modern (directors like to be-suit his productions) is also not just corporate, but darkly, unforgivingly moral. Enforced marriage and virginity have no place under plate-glass.
Bird makes of Alonzo a Roderigo-like pewling fool, simperingly well done. His vengeful brother Tomazo de Piraquo (Olsen Elezi) comes on like a brighter Laertes in Italian rather than French style: bold, quick to wrathful suspicion but just. Far smarter than Alonzo he realises Beatrice-Joanna is in love with someone else, and Elezi enacts brilliantly the notion of her fantasising sex with another on their wedding-night.
Wilkinson Wright channels a visceral corporate boss out of Succession: smiling, steely, implacable, juggling welcome and watchfulness. Her Vermandera puts seeming to the fore; crumpling at the end as into dust. Alsemero’s friend Jasparino (Dane Williams) has an alacrity and dispatch about him – like Tomazo he’s quick to spy and scope out, and Williams gives him a rhythm of his own.
Beatrice-Joanna’s lady in waiting Diaphanta (Henrietta Rhodes) is quite glorious. A young woman dreaming of sex, she’s suggestive, joyously anticipating and colluding with her mistress, a mercurial, comic creation who deserves Jasparino (there seems some connection) rather than the plot.
The mad ghosts, three extra cast-members labelled ‘Patients’ still haunt in a specially-devised singing. The original names, scenes, lines have all gone. If you don’t know the play you’d not have known. I’d be tempted, as one seasoned writer/actor suggested too, to cut Rowley’s ghost out. Unless this is their dream.
They still function as comic relief. Taking a line from the play like “She hates me” first Hamish Sommers, Kiera Murray and rather magnificently Mikko Juan, grab a mic and sing Bobby Locke’s attractive, maddeningly catchy songs to pink balloons, particularly around the wedding celebrations.
We’re pelted with pink balloons and end up batting them back as light relief. A sinister black balloon is held aloft by any character killed, who sits silent at the table. One does this throughout the interval. These spectres at a board feast add an obsidian Jacobean note to the carnival. There’s a spectacular scene of violence but again ritually done despite the blood.
Alice Neale’s costumes emphasise white modernity, including full bridal dress. They often don’t stay white. Yet we’re in a nowhere, possibly a hell dreamt by mad people. Sam Glossop’s sound design is a thrubbing gloom of portent. Stuart Glover’s lighting, hazy and occlusive, is possibly the atmospheric masterpiece of the production.
But it’s to the three central characters on whom all hinges. Dukes knows the force behind blank verse, and all the company deliver with flickering motive behind their eyes. It makes the tragic arc so brilliantly.
Mcdonald makes an often sympathetic, rapt Alsemero, both in church and in his blindfolded meeting with O’Rourke’s Beatrice-Joanna where he offers to do what another will undertake. He manages the double-standard outrage without a blink, blameless in 1622, if not now.
O’Rourke cannily studies the Beatrice or sanctity-ridden side of herself to a delusional degree. You believe this character, who never acknowledges till much later her Joanna side. 1622 unfortunately has this synonymous with ‘whore’ so it’s curious her mother uses it. Misogyny – it’s implicit in the title, is difficult to duck. Middleton though feels conflicted. That’s why this work lives.
But O’Rourke’s adamantine delivery is tremulous rather than sexually excited, as if recognition of desire was tremendous. Then to feel it later in another even more stupendous recognition about another man is the high-point of her depiction.
O’Neill’s De Flores is like Diaphanta more amorously direct. Not physically – this is a production of gesture and intimacy is stylised. “Honest’” as Tomazo claims, he is, at least in feeling. But also like Iago there’s a class-dismissal of ‘honest fellows’ De Flores too seems to loathe. O’Neill gives his character a magnetism, a warmth, humour and ruthless passion that knows how to grip. And unforgettably a charcoal-charnel humour.
The climactic scene between them is thrilling here. As Beatrice-Joanna tries to buy off De Flores he counters: “a woman dipp’d in blood, and talk of modesty!” and to her snobby retort “the distance that creation set ‘twixt thy blood and mine” his levelling rebuttal is final: ”Look but into your conscience… you’ll find me there your equal… Y’are the deed’s creature…”
It’s this rather than the delightful balloons and repurposed mad people, that you take away. The closer Dukes sticks to the original, the more accessible, visceral, true this production is.