Contemporary scribes are regularly lambasted for writing too few roles for women. It’s even rarer to find female riches in the classics, so a National Theater revival of Thomas Middleton’s full-blown Jacobean tragedy, with three juicy female leads, should be cause for celebration. Alas, Marianne Elliott’s production has shimmer but too little substance.
Twice-widowed, wealthy Livia (Harriet Walter) plays power games with other people’s lives. She arranges for the Duke of Florence (simultaneously icy and sleazy Richard Lintern) to bed Bianca (Lauren O’Neil) who has only just run away with nerdy clerk Leantio (Samuel Barnett). Livia also pimps unwitting Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) into her uncle’s bed. But when Livia too falls in lust with Leantio, everything unravels. Jealousies fuel power struggles that, as befits a Jacobean tragedy, climax in an orgy of bloody revenge.
The final, highly stylized sequence of blood-letting, written in the form of a Masque, is largely responsible for the play being so rarely staged. Elliott’s bravura answer to the problem is to re-imagine it as a five-minute dance of death with the entire cast in what is nothing short of a full-scale production number aboard the revolving set on a non-stop spin.
Dazzling though this finale is, it also encapsulates a production that’s manifestly too in thrall to its design concept at the expense of the play’s ideas.
The 17th-century Florentine court has been relocated to the fashionista Italy of “La Dolce Vita,” replete with wasp-waisted women and a sax-and-vibraphone period-style score.
This historic parallel neatly points up the era’s love of excess that is at war with the strict constraint of Catholic society, but it’s far from original. More problematically still, while Lez Brotherston’s grand black and silver sets and chic 1950s costumes have self-conscious period glamour, they evoke little danger and less sex.
Fatally, sexual chemistry is almost entirely missing. Although the actors eat each other up in would-be passionate clinches, their efforts never generate any heat. Thus the crucial jealousies never catch fire so the plot feels like a series of contrivances.
Nor does the pain make real impact. In her impressive stage debut, O’Neil grows in strength as Bianca, but it barely registers that she is not just seduced by the Duke but actually raped (off-stage). And despite the creation of a visual world — albeit with occasional outbursts of consciously anachronistic costume choices — the unusually slow pace creates a sense of performances in isolation.