‘Here is love’s tame madness’ speaks cautious Tomazo of his lovesick brother in Middleton’s tale of obsessive desire and murderous intention that occupies the revengeful heart of The Changeling. As the tale of beautiful, manipulative Beatrice-Joanna contracting her vile servant De Flores to rid her of an unwanted bethrothal (and getting much more than she bargained for in return), is violently thrust against Rowley’s comic subplot of feigning madmen, this restaging of Joe Hill-Gibbins’ acclaimed production proves that love is the most dangerous madness of all.
Repurposing the production for the Young Vic’s Main Space proves no easy feat, and the play’s oppressive sense of confinement, where the household literally and figuratively keeps women in their place, feels lost within the cavernous, breeze block walls, which dilute the visual impact of characters emerging from closets or spying on salacious moments. Yet what Ultz’s design lacks in intensity, it retains in distancing thought and purpose, with the audience finding itself confined behind mesh cages, boxed into viewing galleries and stranded in wheelchairs. Thus positioned, we become powerless to escape the exploitative gaze reflected right back onto us, as we are revealed to be the fools and gallants we truly are, paying money to revel in scenes of sex and madness.
The role of spectator is crucial in a play where the audience know more about the characters true feelings and thoughts than any of their stage fellows. The play’s numerous asides are carefully and clearly demarcated, making early scenes disappointingly lethargic, but heightening our awareness of the falseness that lurks behind each utterance every one of these ‘changelings’ makes. Adding to this sense of performance are Hill-Gibbins’ bold choices about what we do and do not see: murders happen off-stage, while private moments in the bedroom are played out in front of our spying eyes. The production doesn’t shy away from showing the play’s brutal sexuality and misogyny in graphic detail, yet deliberately substitutes male-on-male violence and bodily fluids for brilliantly absurd metaphors – a banana wielded in place of a knife, trifle smeared over bodies like virginal blood and, well, you get the idea.
In foregrounding spectacle and excess, Hill-Gibbins loses some of what makes the relationship between Beatrice and De Flores so intriguingly complex. Beyond the thoroughly nasty moment when De Flores demands his reward for the murder he has inflicted on Beatrice’s behalf, the subtleties of their characters, feelings towards each other and development of their relationship feel only superficially explored. Zubin Varla captures De Flores’ obsessive nature as he creepily thrusts his fingers into Beatrice’s sockets, in full sadomasochistic knowledge of the loathing she feels for him in return. When he appears post-coital after the murder it is as if he is already enjoying the ravishing thought of his reward: his child-bride whom he then carries awkwardly over the threshold. Beatrice herself feels perfectly naïve – inextricably bound to Sinead Matthews’ doll-like appearance – as she unknowingly plays with fire by enticing De Flores to do her bidding, even if we never quite believe her to be ‘the deed’s creature’. De Flores snatching Beatrice from her bridal bed and raping her on a dining table while the wedding party does the conga around them is unflinchingly explicit, yet the banality with which Matthews observes out of the darkness that ‘this fellow has undone me endlessly’ elicits titters rather than disgust. While the set piece wedding party, throbbing to an amusingly ominous soundtrack, makes for exhilarating theatre, the production’s overall irreverence overpowers any subtlety of understanding on more than one occasion.
Harry Hadden-Paton’s Alsemero, the object of Beatrice’s true desire, is perceptively played with a fastidious religiousness that accounts for his fear of female sexuality and makes sense of his extreme anger when Beatrice’s fall from virtue is revealed. Eleanor Matsuura’s Isabella – locked up by her husband to stop other men preying on her – similarly embodies the simultaneous empowerment and fear of female sexuality that is at the very heart of the play. As the whore to Beatrice’s Madonna, Isabella becomes an overtly stereotypical object of male lust within an inflated, grotesque madhouse; a tottering blow-up doll entirely constructed for male pleasure and locked in a cage so that only her keeper – the horribly pervy Lollio (Alex Beckett) – can enjoy her.
Scholars and theorists will argue until the end of time about whether Middleton and Rowley’s fractured narrative and sinful heroine/s constitute a ‘tragedy’ or not (whatever that should mean), but what is quite thrilling about this production is that it proves that, on stage, theory ceases to matter. Debased of any sense of tragedy, The Changeling is allowed to be exactly what it is – messy, ridiculous, extreme – with the two plots not so much mirroring one another as blending together into one nauseating concoction.