Although The Changeling is considered a Jacobean tragedy, it doesn’t quite have the same Grand Guignol elements as some other members of the canon. There’s no incest here, no poisoned Bibles, no biting off of tongues, just plain honest fornication and murder. This story of adultery among the aristocracy mirrored by the similar goings-on in a madhouse, almost seems like two separate plays; the link between the two being extremely tenuous.
The Bristol Tobacco Factory and its director Andrew Hilton have brought their vision of Middleton and Rowley’s rarely-performed play to London as a companion-piece to Hilton’s production of Macbeth. As with Macbeth, it’s a production that is low on production values and director concepts and high on clear speaking.
However, for all the quality of the acting, I’m not convinced this approach is right for The Changeling. It works with Macbeth because it lets the verse flow; the more prosaic speeches of The Changeling seem a bit flat. A theme of the play is how closely the madhouse and the Alicante court resemble each other.
There are compensations: Matthew Thomas’s softy-spoken De Flores really seems the honest servant that people say he is – there’s always the temptation to play him as a pantomime villain but Thomas presents him as a decent man driven to murder by his desire for Beatrice Joanna, a rather bland Saskia Portway.
There’s also a strong Alsamero, the hapless husband, courtesy of Rupert Ward-Lewis, and some a good cameo from Zoe Aldrich as Diaphanta, the unfortunate maid. I like John Telfer’s evocative music too, it moved quickly from church music to a sort of restrained flamenco that enhanced the text.
The Changeling, with its depiction of a Spanish nobility plumbing the depths of depravity, was a popular play in the 17th century. We are all far too sophisticated to relish the anti-Spanish sentiments of course, but perhaps we would appreciate some of the passion that lies behind such views. This production, unlike Diaphana’s chamber, fails to catch fire.
- Maxwell Cooter
NOTE: The following 4 star review dates from March 2004 and this production’s original run in Bristol.
The Changeling marks a return to form for the excellent Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company after a lack-lustre Macbeth, their other show, this season. SATTF has been on a critical roll since it took to the boards four years ago in this wonderfully intimate venue, winning deserved plaudits for their back-to-basics, period costume, pin-sharp and crystal-clear productions.
Middleton, who co-wrote the play with Rowley, is thought to have contributed to Macbeth but while he may share some of his themes, Shakespeare he isn't (director Andrew Hilton describes the language of the play as "spare and workmanlike").
In addition, in his adaptation of the play, Dominic Power for SATTF has restructured some parts of the play and added one entirely new scene.
The Changeling consists of a main plot and sub-plot which mirror each other in their exploration of love, passion and madness. Vermandero, a grandee of Alicante, plans to marry his daughter Beatrice-Joanna - who is already in love with the dashing Alsemero, a Valencian nobleman - to a man she loathes.
In desperation, Beatrice enlists the help of her father's servant, De Flores, whom she also loathes, to off the rival suitor, paving the way for her to marry Alsemero. Unfortunately De Flores can't be bought off with gold and jewellery.
In the sub-plot, set in a lunatic asylum, two suitors for the affections of Isabella, the new and languorously plush wife of Alibius, superintendent of the madhouse, feign insanity in order to get access to their inamorata, who is jealously kept under close guard by Alibius and Lollio, his right-hand man.
Props are, as ever, kept to a minimum and, thanks to the company's practice of using period costume, there are no misguided directorial conceits or theories and no jarring modern transpositions to get in the way of the text.
The playing by the cast is uniformly good with some stand out performances. Saskia Portway is terrific as Beatrice, headstrong, impassioned and out of her depth when it comes to intrigue, while Matthew Thomas is a finely villainous De Flores. There is fine support too from Zoe Aldrich as Diaphanta, Beatrice's handmaid. Those who can't make it to Bristol will have the chance of catching this very enjoyable production when it transfers to the Barbican this autumn.
- Pete Wood