Anyone wondering what it is a theater director actually does should see the National Theater’s wholly arresting “A Woman Killed With Kindness.” For although the 1603 domestic tragedy is written by the almost forgotten Thomas Heywood, everything about this revival cries out for movie-style billing: a Katie Mitchell production. Purists longing for a faithful rendition of this Elizabethan drama will be affronted. More open-minded viewers will succumb to the spell cast by this prime example of auteur theater.
For starters, Mitchell relocates the action to 1919. Early/mid-century England is a favorite period for Mitchell, who has transposed many a text to this era where social strictures remain strong, especially for women.
Following the play’s parallel plotting of the fateful trajectories of two women, Mitchell and her designers Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer divide the wide Lyttelton stage into two adjacent, startlingly detailed, fully realized households.
On one side is the chilly aristocratic mansion overseen by staunchly dutiful Susan Mountford (Sandy McDade), sister of Sir Charles (Leo Bill) who is sent to prison for killing a servant of Sir Francis Acton (Nick Fletcher). On the other is the middle-class home of Anne Frankford (Liz White), newly married to John Frankford (Paul Ready) but recently attracted by the charms of John’s friend Wendoll (Sebastian Armesto) with fatal consequences.
That much is faithful to Heywood. But to create her own portrait of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Mitchell strips Heywood’s five-act text down, not least removing countless monologues by the male characters. More radically still, she completely reverses the happy ending of the Mountford plot to present a unified vision absent from the original.
All of this is presented in a mesmerizing staging that brilliantly delineates social strata with minutely choreographed behavior as close to dance as it is to drama. Underscored by the perpetual movement of Paul Clark’s piano music — Poulenc with added neuroticism — the transitions are as compelling as the scenes themselves, with flurries of servants scurrying about their duties, shifting, clearing and cleaning furniture, tending to and commenting upon their masters and mistresses.
For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction as Mitchell simultaneously fills both sides of the stage with beautifully opposed life. Both households have pianos — the Mountfords’ is a grand, the Frankfords’ is an upright — both of which are played by the women, and both houses have staircases that the staff race up and down. The overall effect is like watching “Upstairs, Downstairs” directed by Pina Bausch.
Blanched by worry and erect as a pencil, McDade is riveting as she suffers for her brother’s behavior, a feat all the more impressive since Bill’s non-stop shouting robs their plot of compassion. On the other side of the class divide, Ready’s descent into fury as he discovers his wife’s infidelity is genuinely shocking while Gawn Grainger as his manservant is touching in his selflessness.
The more Mitchell pushes the scenario toward “pure” dance the less affecting the performance grows. And although the final scene represents another staging coup, the intended emotional effect doesn’t fully hit home. That the wholly idiosyncratic evening is intensely watchable is a tribute to the 18-strong company’s realization of Mitchell’s vision. Commerical it isn’t, but compelling it most certainly is.