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Review Round-up: Critics Eye National's Women

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Marianne Elliott's revival of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy Women Beware Women opened at the NT Oliver this week as part of the Travelex £10 Tickets Season.

The play is set in the Italian court, where wealth secures power and power serves lust, and the lascivious Duke can play wherever he chooses. He catches the eye of another’s exquisite bride, Bianca. Can a glance secure her fate, a bribe appease her husband?

Harriet Walter leads the cast as the meddling twice-widowed Livia, alongside Samuel Barnett as Leantio, Lauren O'Neil as Bianca, Richard Lintern as the Duke, Harry Melling as The Ward and Vanessa Kirby as Isabella.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) - “The case for Thomas Middleton being our second greatest Jacobean dramatist is brilliantly prosecuted with this murky, magnificent and utterly hypnotic production … 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 … 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 ... I think we’ve just seen the best classical revival of the year.”
  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (four stars) - “Elliott updates the action … to 1950s Florence. This makes for a slinkily good-looking production … Harriet Walter's Livia is superb … The acting is beautifully precise … It is a witty production … But the comedy can be awful too … the production gradually darkens as it approaches the climactic masked ball, delivered here on the revolving stage as a dizzying dance of murder … The pacing is a bit off - rather slow and starchy at the outset. And the ending needs work: it is more impressive than hair-raising, so we don't feel the tragic dimension of the play. But still this is a staging that wraps its inky fingers around you and holds you, spellbound.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - "The best thing about this lengthy romp through greed and lust and female bitching is the finale ... There is something lacking in the first half, though. Perhaps it is the absence of any sense of real love between Bianca and her clerk husband Leantio (Samuel Barnett), who is surely too runty ever to have won the hand of ripe Bianca ... Miss Walter seems unable to play a character without clipped precision. The way she hits the letter T in words such as ‘virtue’ and ‘fortune’ is a work of art all in itself ... After three complex, dispiriting hours you feel you have deserved that climax almost as much as the sinners. But it is a heck of a send-off."
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - "Although Marianne Elliott's modern-dress production of Middleton's 1621 play is wittily inventive, I found myself wishing it owed more to Medici Florence than to Fellini's Rome: La Dolce Vita has become a lazy reference point for these Italianate Jacobean plays … Elliott highlights Middleton's bitter comedy with suave skill … In short, I was amused and diverted but my withers were never wrung. Harriet Walter gives a good account of Livia and is very funny when she finds herself smitten by Bianca's discarded husband. Samuel Barnett as the helpless cuckold, Vanessa Kirby as the tricked Isabella, Richard Lintern as the Mussolinesque Duke and Andrew Woodall as a sly courtier also give good, well-defined performances."
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) - "Marianne Elliott's production ... culminates in a gorgeous, debauched masked ball ... It’s a sequence dripping with bravura, and it highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of this interpretation. Middleton is a dramatist who combines intricate plotting with pageantry; Elliott brings a lavish sensibility to his work ... Harriet Walter gives a performance at once measured and full of relish: there’s passion in her destructiveness, yet also clarity in her perception of how best to enact her unscrupulous plans. Lauren O’Neil makes a sympathetic Bianca, while Harry Melling gets to prance about in a delightfully cretinous fashion as The Ward, and Samuel Barnett’s Leantio is a nerdy sort of libertine ... The play starts slowly, and it’s only after about an hour that it really comes to life. Even when it does, the dazzle of the piece exceeds its emotional interest."
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) - “Nothing wrong with the updating in Marianne Elliott’s production except that the play is Jacobean to its core, reflecting a pessimism, a paranoia about foreigners and lurid tastes even more extreme than in our own era … Livia is one of the great Jacobean monsters and at times I wondered if Walter didn’t emphasise the character’s blithe social self too much, her inner ruthlessness too little. She dresses like Cruella De Vil, but lacks the glittering intensity of evil that Penelope Wilton brought to the role when the RSC staged the play in 2006 … Yet could she and Elliott’s admirably lucid revival increase the energy level a bit? On opening night I got Middleton’s morbidity but not until that ending the full ferocity of the horrors he saw in Renaissance Italy and, just conceivably, would see in Britain 2010.”
  • Claire Allfree in Metro (three stars) - “The Jacobeans could certainly teach our politicians a thing or two about corruption. Nonetheless, Marianne Elliott’s production … although set in 1950s Italy, doesn’t overstress the parallels. Rather its cool air of calculation is ironically at odds with the feverish heat of much Jacobean drama … Harriet Walter… is consummate as Livia … who, in a brilliant piece of staging, calmly plays chess with Bianca’s mother-in-law while the Duke rapes Bianca on the balcony. Still Elliott sacrifices a visceral thrill for a visual one - her production is arresting but doesn’t always get you in the gut … Elliot’s portrait is almost too beautiful: you never feel contaminated by this bitter, grubby world view quite in the way you should.”
  • Julie Carpenter in the Daily Express (four stars) - "Here is a court thick with corruption and Marianne Elliott's almost hypnotic new production updates the action to the late Fifties/ early Sixties and perfectly captures the louche immorality, from the decadent marble set with sweeping staircase to the seductive saxophone music that recalls seedy jazz clubs ... It all adds up to a typically Jacobean-style bloodbath but this terrific production gives us enough humour to lighten the load, particularly with Harry Melling's ludicrously camp heir. In a top-quality cast, Harriet Walter is magisterial as Livia and Lauren O'Neil makes for an impassioned Bianca who still seems in love with Leantio (Samuel Barnett) even after she pursues her pragmatic course with the rapist duke."
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