DISCLAIMER: This review is of the final preview performance.
A wedding is the starting point for two different stories in Thomas Heywood's 1607 "domestic tragedy" A Woman Killed With Kindness. The stage is split in two and on house right is the house of newlyweds John Frankford (Paul Ready) and Anne (Liz White.) When Frankford invites Wendoll (Sebastian Armesto) to stay and share in everything he has, Wendoll takes him at his word and is soon in bed with Anne. When her husband finds out he humiliates her in front of the whole household. On house left is the crumbling mansion of siblings Sir Charles Mountford (Leo Bill) and Susan (Sandy McDade.) At the wedding reception Charles made a friendly bet with Anne's brother, Sir Francis Acton (Nick Fletcher.) But things turned nasty, Charles killed one of Acton's men and getting him out of prison has crippled them with debt. But Acton may well be their salvation, as he's fallen in love with the mousy Susan.
The two stories very rarely intersect and Katie Mitchell's staging, on Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer's beautifully realised set, only serves to emphasize this - as well as the fact that a lot more time is devoted to Anne's story than Susan's. They've successfully moved the action to the Edwardian era, perhaps because of the contribution to the action of the servants, which gives the production an Upstairs Downstairs feel. The action often jumps forward several months, and here Mitchell has injected a lot of her particular style, with the scene changes performed as if in fast-forward, slo-mo, rewind or stop-motion photography. The actors' movement is very impressively done here (movement work by Joseph Alford) but while it's not quite as self-indulgent as the scene changes in Pains of Youth Mitchell is perhaps a bit too committed to the conceit: The more elaborate scene changes take an age.
The show runs at two hours with no interval; in terms of how the story was put across I didn't feel as if a break was needed, but the reason I did wish for an interval was my biggest problem with the production, namely Jon Clark's lighting. Lots of shadow may be moody but from the back of the stalls I found myself struggling to see who the hell anyone was. It's exacerbated because the lighting is mostly practical, so a lot of the time you're looking at the silhouette of someone standing in front of a lamp. I wanted an interval not for the purposes of breaking up the story, but to give my eyes a rest, this was one of the shows that I found genuinely tiring just to watch, and not in the exhilarating way you sometimes get. (The dim lighting also means that despite it lasting a couple of minutes I can't tell you much about Sebastian Armesto'sMy theatre companion tonight was Richard; three of the four shows he's now seen at the National have had frontal male nudity in them, as far as he's concerned this is just something they do there.) My one other comment would be that while McDade's movement was incredible, her vocal projection left a lot to be desired.
These irritations stop A Woman Killed With Kindness from being quite as interesting an evening as it might have been, but I certainly don't agree with the people I overheard on the way out saying "I haven't seen anything that bad at the theatre for a long time," though I can easily imagine that others will feel that way. There's a lot that's interesting here but some of Mitchell's more perverse staging flourishes detract, rather than contributing to the effect.
A Woman Killed With Kindness by Thomas Heywood is in repertory until the 11th of September at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.