Middleton and Rowley’s great, misshapen tragedy finally meets its match in a production which faces the play’s complexity and malformation head on and at high speed. Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production is as full of contrasts and paradoxes as the play itself; it is rough yet devilishly precise; playful but deadly serious. It is a theatrical bedlam, powered by a mad bravery which is utterly invigorating.
Middleton and Rowley’s play is a notoriously fractured collaboration, with Middleton’s scenes full of the bloody betrayals and thwarted passions of Women Beware Women or The Revenger’s Tragedy, while Rowley contributed the grotesque but dramatically unsatisfying madhouse subplot, commensurate with his inferior skill. Critics and directors have found myriad ways to make a virtue of this division, here the lack of dramatic coherence inspires the entire approach, as the narrative messily accretes rather than develops, until the stage is littered with the detritus of past scenes, filling the empty stage like bric a brac in a store cupboard.
The Changeling is an ugly play, and here it has found a production which revels in that ugliness. Designer Ultz’s DIY aesthetic is more B&Q than Sonic Youth, full of bare nails and splinters to catch at the skin and draw blood. The stage seems half finished, like a school gym midway through alterations, nothing is comforting or beautiful, nothing is menacing or gruesome, everything is half-finished or subtly debased, and the effect is both disquieting and utterly compelling. The music is too loud and juts at strange angles to the scenes, James Farncombe’s lighting is often hideous, and hideous like the lift in an underground car park, not a Jacobean slaughterhouse: these are both good things. The brilliant use of jelly and custard to stand in for both blood (or rather acts of violence) as well as illicit sex gives the act of sinning a cloying physical presence utterly appropriate to Middleton and Rowley’s vision of evil as an infectious, encrusting disease that spreads through lust and murder and lays waste to beauty. When Alsemero announces that ‘The bed itself’s a charnel’ following Beatrice-Joanna’s unmasking as a murderess, here it is in fact a trifle, but one redolent of butchery and rape.
This aesthetic and interpretative excellence would count for little, of course, unless the play itself was well realised, and fortunately Hill-Gibbins has succeeded here too. The wellspring of The Changeling’s ugliness, choleric servant De Flores, is played with the perfect balance of repulsive lechery and strange innocence by Daniel Cerqueira. Morally bankrupt but intellectually vulnerable, he moults with rampant psoriasis and crumbles into abject and ineffectual evil. Jessica Raine is similarly stunning in the pivotal role of Beatrice-Joanna, nailing the strains of masochistic glee which begin to develop as she sinks further into collaboration with De Flores. Their final moments together, emerging bound together like some mewling two-headed beast, were impeccably awful.
The subplot is wisely retained, held together by Alex Beckett’s slouching, Punch- like Lollio, and Duncan Wisbey, who finds some wonderful moments in the underwritten role of Alibius. The moment in which the subplot collides with the main action is too startling to spoil, but in its blending of apparent madness with intellectual perspicacity it’s like the entire production in microcosm. Like Antonio, it pretends at foolishness only to seduce, and every flippancy is the counterfeit of a serious grappling with a difficult text.
Things sag ever so slightly at the beginning of Act IV (though Zoë Svendsen’s intelligently truncated new version makes such divisions almost irrelevant) but this is swiftly forgiven as the final scenes hurtle towards the finish line. The action accelerates into a blur of recriminations and wrap-up, the dramatically irrelevant conclusion of the subplot is essentially talked over, Alibius giving up the ghost on his spectre of a role with a shrug as the final lines tumble over one another to escape. It is an ugly, sloppy way to end a play, that like the rest of this cunning production, is masterfully employed.