I normally write these reviews once I get home to my laptop, having mulled a show over for a bit. But this time I knew I would get distracted, because two hours after Women Beware Women finished I was sitting down to watch a different show. So in a slight change, I scribbled my review in a notebook after the play, so I can type it up here now:
Marianne Elliott follows last year's All's Well That Ends Well at the National by turning to tragedy, although this production of Middleton's Women Beware Women has many comic moments amongst the intrigue. Middleton sets up two worlds in the same neighbourhood, the poor household of Leantio (Samuel Barnett) in the shadow of the Duke's wealthy court (Lez Brotherston's revolving set vividly reflects these two sides of the same coin.) To start with each setting has its own distinct storyline but soon the plots start to mingle, with inevitably deadly consequences.
Elliott builds up the production as if coiling a spring, which literally uncoils at the end as the stage rapidly revolves and murders unfold. If the production stretches patience a bit in the buildup to this denouement, when it does arrive it's fittingly explosive. Harriet Walter ably leads the cast as the Machiavellian Livia (an unusually large role for a woman in theatre of that era,) twisting two young women to the will of powerful men, but she herself becomes a fool for love when she falls for Leantio. Walter and Barnett's scenes together have great comic timing, helping to lend the production a sense of overall hysteria rather than bleak tragedy. The whole cast is strong though - after sharing the stage with his onscreen mother last year, Harry Melling returns to the NT in a more notable role here, as the foppish Ward, providing comic relief, most memorably in a ridiculous dance sequence. Lauren O'Neil and Vanessa Kirby are also good as the two young women caught up in powerful men's machinations.
The plot is convoluted but Elliott and her cast let if unfold with great clarity. Where All's Well That Ends Well made me wonder why that play is so (in relative terms) obscure, the same isn't quite true here. With the exception of the corrupted Bianca and to a lesser extent Isabella, you don't care for the characters and the fates they bring upon themselves. But this is tragedy as spectacle, not heartbreak, and in these terms the production is a hit.
Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton is booking until the 4th of July at the National Theatre's Olivier.