To prove that he has faithfully carried out Alonzo’s murder, manservant De Flores (Will Keen) tries to remove the dead man’s diamond ring, but it’s such a snug fit it won’t budge. Astride the body, struggling to get a purchase on the ring, he wheels around until, with his back to the audience, he wrenches off the whole finger. We see only the jerk of his elbow accompanied by a fleeting ripping sound effect, yet an audible shiver races across the auditorium. Most stagings of Jacobean tragic horror veer toward Wes Craven-style gore, but Cheek by Jowl’s production of “The Changeling” majors in atmospheric suggestion.
Middleton and Rowley’s tragedy of love and loathing offers dramatic pluses — chills, blood spills, rampant lust and two terrific leading roles — and one big minus: the subplot about feigned madness in a madhouse. A merciless parade of lunatics may have gone over well when it was first performed in 1624, but antics with antic dispositions sit uneasily with modern audiences.
Since he cannot solve the problem by jettisoning the mad scenes (because of the way the plots are woven together in the final scene), director Declan Donnellan goes boldly in the opposite direction. He’s intent on beefing up the mad scenes by having the same actors play both plots, thus underlining the madness of love that drives the central characters to murderous extremes.
The play’s title refers to Beatrice Joanna (Olivia Williams), naively betrothed to Alonzo di Piracquo (Laurence Spellman), who discovers she is actually in love with Alsemero (a firmly upstanding Tom Hiddleston). Her growing passion takes hold and leads her to enlist the aid of her loathed, facially disfigured manservant, De Flores. He puts up with her stinging scorn — “Thou standing toad-pool” is just one of her incessant putdowns — because “I know she hates me but cannot choose but love her.”
In a plot predating “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by three centuries, De Flores carries out the murder believing Beatrice Joanna will be his reward. Spurning her offer of money, he aggressively takes her virginity — with Donnellan’s production strongly suggesting the rape is borderline consensual. From then on, the sinning pair cheat, lie and kill to maintain the appearance of innocence.
This production, the first in a three-year residency at the Barbican, takes over the mainstage but ignores the auditorium. Auds are on raked seating placed on the stage itself, with the actors utilizing the immense width of the stripped-out black backstage area.
Judith Greenwood lights the cavernous space mostly from the sides. Thus faces and bodies loom out of sepulchral gloom. That mood of literal and metaphorical darkness is aided by the costumes of severe contemporary black suits and dresses. The only color is that of around a dozen utilitarian plastic orange seats, the only furniture.
Nick Ormerod’s deliberately uncluttered production design accentuates a plot turning on whispered secrets that must not be overheard. Everything rests upon speaking and listening, which puts acute pressure on the actors.
Keen meets the challenge head-on, giving a scrupulous performance of an unscrupulous man. An immensely versatile actor, Keen adopts a nasal tone to emphasize De Flores’ sneering at those around him and replaces the usual ferocity associated with the role with eerily clipped, psychopathic self-control that makes his viciousness all the powerful.
Williams, however, doesn’t match him. Worryingly, she indicates Beatrice Joanna’s seething emotions too early, robbing her character of development. She’s good at the bitter ironies of the second half, where she goes to inordinate lengths to persuade her virginal maid to stand in for her on the wedding night but, as passion subsumes her, her hysteria is peculiarly inexpressive. Her voice rises so high that it seems to be the actor, not the character, losing control.
The production is at its weakest in the mad scenes, played beneath hard strip-lighting. Donnellan’s actors perform what amounts to a modish concerto of tics, twitches and obsessive behavioral mannerisms that may well be authentically observed but collectively look like a bunch of actors doing mad acting.
By the second half, however, the madhouse scenes take on a comic life of their own. As lunatic lover Antonio, Phil Cheadle switches between fakery and truth at gleefully lightning speed, and the mayhem peaks with a Klezmer-style dance of insane delight.
With those scenes finally in focus, a cumulative rhythm begins to build. The journey from guilt to the climactic bloodbath feels inexorable and properly, horribly, right.