The play opens with a pair of lovers, newly eloped to the groom’s mother’s house. However, their love will be brutally cut short. The bride, Bianca, catches the eye of the Duke of Florence and, lured to his palace on pretext, is raped by the duke. So far, so conventional. But the rape is just the starting point for Middleton’s exploration of the dark side of sex, ambition and power.
Rather than kill herself, or seek revenge, Bianca adjusts to the realpolitik and transfers her loyalty to the Duke. Leantio, her heartbroken lover, also quickly adjusts to the new realities and after accepting service in the Duke’s court, soon consents to be a noblewoman’s toy boy.
While necrophilia and cannibalism, which pop up in some of Middleton’s other work, don’t get a look in here, we do get incest and a healthy body count during the final scene, a blackly comic court masque celebrating the marriage of the Duke and Bianca, in which all scores are settled.
And this black comedy is the other aspect which makes Women and Middleton so recognisably modern. It as if he is undermining the very genre he is writing in, destabilising the revenge play by making the denouement ridiculously over the top and completely improbable. When the bodies pile up before him, the Duke pores over his notes and complains that this isn’t in his text.
Director Laurence Boswell, who gave us a terrific Dog in the Manger during last year’s Spanish Golden Age season, handles the comedy deftly, as one would expect, but doesn’t find the darkness needed. The programme notes write of one production which featured a set festooned with rotting corpses suspended from meat hooks. You couldn’t imagine that in this production.
Penelope Wilton shines as Livia, adept with comedy and grief alike, and there is fine support from Peter Guinness as Guardiano, Tim Piggott-Smith as the Duke and Susan Engel as Leantio’s mother. The costumes (designed by Richard Hudson) are an odd mix, very like this play.
- Pete Wood