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The Broken Heart (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

John Ford's tragedy struggles to come to life in Caroline Steinbeis's production

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Behind the candelabra: Amy Morgan (Penthea) and Owen Teale (Bassanes) in The Broken Heart
(© Marc Brenner)

John Ford is having a purple patch. Between them, the RSC and Shakespeare's Globe have given us four Fords in two years. Love's Sacrifice, coming up next in Stratford, has gone 400-odd years unstaged.

That makes The Broken Heart look like a staple, despite 20 years away, but it's done a disservice here. Some plays need their case making and the house style at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - pared back and language-led - doesn't allow the sort of directorial invention that can untangle a knotty plot. Caroline Steinbeis's production, though it comes into sharp focus for a riveting denouement, doesn't do enough to reveal the play's patterns early on.

Ford's play concerns the obstacles in the way of love; the arranged or enforced marriages or, at the lesser end of the scale, the simple need for external consent. Orgilus (Brian Ferguson) can't marry Penthea (Amy Morgan), because she's been promised to Owen Teale's Bassenes. Yet he still insists on having a say over his sister Euphrania's marriage, while Penthea's brother Ithocles (Luke Thompson), who negotiated her marriage, finds himself facing a similar problem. He falls for Calantha, princess of Sparta, only to find her steered towards an appropriate - albeit preening and prattish - partner, Prince Nearchus.

'The staging takes too long to find its pulse'

Steinbeis doesn't make those structures clear and she's not helped by Max Jones's costumes, which make Sparta look strangely like ComicCon, complete with hobbits, Lannisters and Queen Padmes. The attempt to portray Ford's women as trophy wives is confused by placing them in armour, suggesting steel and equality first and foremost, while using the whole space, auditorium and all, is a desperate attempt to induce some dynamism that makes sightlines a real issue. It's a director's job to save us from synopses. I spent the interval pouring over the programme.

Steinbeis finally finds her own approach, giving a contemporary twist to the classical style and, all of a sudden, it makes sense of the play. She gives us a language to latch onto, particularly Imogen Knight's choreography, which turns courtly civility into something like a cardiac arrest as Ford ratchets up the cruelty, ending with deaths by sleep deprivation and the draining of blood. Sarah MacRae's Calantha dies of actual heartbreak with a final furious outpouring: "Let me die smiling."

Several performances become clear at the last. Brian Ferguson, so strangely child-like as Orgilus, is eventually disturbing when his revenge kicks in, now calculated and psychotic, while Teale's Bassenes, who wears his spite too outwardly, suddenly softens as the deaths rack up. Thalissa Teixeira, a recent graduate, confirms her promise as Euphrania, and Joe Jameson injects some humour as a pompous Nearchus, but the staging takes too long to find its pulse.

The Broken Heart runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 18 April