The case for Thomas Middleton being our second greatest Jacobean dramatist is brilliantly prosecuted with this murky, magnificent and utterly hypnotic production of Women Beware Women (1621) by Marianne Elliott in the Olivier.
Rarely seen – and not in London since Howard Barker’s mixed-up make-over at the Royal Court in 1986 – the play is a beautifully constructed dance of death and revenge in Renaissance Florence, with the widow Livia pulling the strings in two fantastically unravelling narratives.
First, she engineers the rape and seduction of the newly married Bianca by the preening Duke, while diverting Bianca’s mother-in-law in a game of chess. Second, she indulges her brother Hippolita’s incestuous passion for his own niece, Isabella (who is engaged, against her will, to a stupid rich boy), by convincing Isabella of the justness of her own physical itch.
Harriet Walter as the wicked and witty Livia, attired in black silks and pearls, her hair done up like Wallis Simpson’s, presides sumptuously in a modern-dress decadent society of cocktails and chandeliers, frock coats and stiletto heels, with a jazz combo and singer underpinning the verse with sinuous settings of key couplets.
It's a dark and dreadful place, this Florence, and Elliott and her designer Lez Brotherston devise a scenic carousel of stairways, balconies, chandeliers and candelabra, that spins into chaos and confusion in the fifth act masque. This is the nearest I’ve ever seen the gruesome tragedy reach its proper charnel house climax, though the details of it are slightly altered in a general mayhem of murder at the cost of the allegorical masque proper.
The play, freighted with lewd and sexual imagery of the most remarkable frankness, proceeds in a series of equally remarkable scenes. The marriage of Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) to her lower-class “factor” or clerical agent Leantio (Samuel Barnett) is set up, anatomised, then destroyed by jealousy and her submission to the vile Duke (Richard Lintern).
At a lavish banquet, where Leantio’s mother (Tilly Tremayne) tastes the good life in her housecoat and cardigan, the Duke commands two dances of Vanessa Kirby’s pliant Isabella, first with Hippolita (Raymond Coulthard), then with her hilariously stupid “intended,” Ward (brilliant newcomer Harry Melling). Livia is drawn to Leantio as her sex-toy-boy and the whole crew is denounced by a windy Cardinal (Chu Omambala).
The scene where Ward and his punkish sidekick Sordido (Nick Blood) inspect Isabella as in a cattle market is disgustingly funny, a good example of the production bridging the centuries in its discussion of sexual mores and the marketing of relationships.
Choreography by Arthur Pita, music by Olly Fox and lighting by Neil Austin all play their part, and there is a wonderfully reptilian performance by Andrew Woodall as a “Mr Fixit” courtier with his sticky fingers plunged into every pie on the shelf. I think we’ve just seen the best classical revival of the year.