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A Woman Killed with Kindness

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Katie Mitchell made her RSC debut with this play twenty years ago, the first time Thomas Heywood’s superb Jacobean domestic tragedy of two disastrous marriages in the English countryside had been seen since John Dexter’s austere and revelatory production (starring Anthony Hopkins and Joan Plowright) for the National at the Old Vic.

She obviously feels passionately about the piece, but I’m not sure that this new version on the vast Lyttelton stage – updated loosely to the 1920s, and placing the adulterous Anne Frankford (Liz White) alongside the abused sister (Sandy McDade) of a ruined squire in a scenic juxtaposition of pianos and staircases – is an improvement.

Like Dexter, Mitchell initially presented the play on a bare stage and gave full value to the bleached realism of the sinuous verse, the outdoor imagery of hawks and hunting, penury and death. And she obliterated all the orthodox objections to the sub-plot by making the play seem an organic whole. The show had a small-scale intensity.

Crucially, at the Lyttelton, Leo Bill’s febrile and sottish Sir Charles Mountford, John Frankford’s best man and the murderous bet loser who manipulates his sister into an arranged marriage to cover his debts, straddles both sides of the stage with a dominating outlandishness. But, overall, the performance itself, as in so many Mitchell productions, is uneven; she’s not really interested in acting.

The cruel acoustics render a lot of the play inaudible, too, at least from where I was sitting in Row G. The update stymies the outdoor scene, and the raucous flare-up among the farm workers is bungled. Sandy McDade’s Susan mysteriously walks backwards up the staircase. There’s a lot of embarrassing sub-Pina Bausch rushing around.

The final scene is played in a long thin hospital ward, the first time the actors seem to be properly engaging with the audience, and John Frankford’s last line of apologetic appeasement is taken by McDade to ram home a feminist point at the expense of Frankford’s truthfulness.

Paul Ready is a confused and unhappy Frankford, but he is almost indistinguishable from Sebastian Armesto as his cuckold Wendoll (perhaps that’s the point). Without condoning adultery, Heywood makes a good case against domestic violence in marriage, but this happens over a period of years, a sense missing here.

The vault-like adjacent interiors designed by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer are deliberately under-lit by John Clark, but this again makes the actors too remote. Paul Clark’s Scriabin-like piano score complements some doodles by Anne and Susan themselves, but there’s no real poetic coherence between these different musical registers.

Still, this is such a wonderful and important play that even a half-cock revival conveys its astonishing modernity and realism. The best speaking comes from Nick Fletcher as the “arranged” husband, and it’s nice to see Gawn Grainger pottering around as Frankford’s pliable retainer and Kate Duchêne emoting fiercely (but why?) as a domestic slave whose name, Cicely (aka Sisley) Milk-Pail, doesn’t survive the update either.


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