The Changeling

Image from shakesperesglobe.com. No copyright infringement intended

The Sam Wanamaker Theaters latest offering comes from the oft-overlooked genre of Jacobean tragedy. As this lively production demonstrates, these plays can be deeply compelling. We come back, fascinated, to the bizarre mixture of blood, poetry, grotesque humor, beauty and pathos that they offer. More than that, the sense, present in all of them, of a world that has lost its innocence, spinning out of control. The characters in these dramas are carried along by events, generally of their own making, and become victims of out-of-control passions. There is no sane authority that can be appealed to, no fixed point onto which they can hang. Perhaps it is this world that we recognize and feel a connection to. This is not to say that the plots or the characters lack anything; the two most popular tragedies in recent years – ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and The Duchess of Malfi – have all the hallmarks of satisfying tragic drama: protagonists afflicted by a fatal flaw that upsets the balance of their world; an emotional situation with which the audience can connect; a plot that proceeds with sense of dark inevitability; and a satisfying conclusion.

The Changeling has all of these qualities, but differs in some ways from our usual conception of ‘tragedy’; The atmosphere is one of domestic secrecy; Personal relationships, not court intrigue, are central to the plot; The setting is almost an irrelevance; And the play is so character-centric, so closely psychologically plotted, that it is almost a character study. Beatrice-Joanna, the protagonist, is set on marrying the man of her choice; to escape her current engagement she hires the repulsive and amoral De Flores to kill her fiancé. Unfortunately for her, De Flores is obsessed with her and demands sex in payment for the murder. Beatrice’s world spirals out of control as she engages in a desperate cover-up attempt that begets further murder. There is also a comic sub-plot set in a madhouse that reverses the events of the plot and plays it for laughs, acting as a sort of counterpoint to the main action.

The heart of the play is the relationship between Beatrice and De Flores. Beatrice insists that she hates him, but what are her real feelings? Is De Flores just a thug who seizes an opportunity to rape Beatrice, or are this strange couple made for each other? Or is the truth somewhere in between? Their actions during the play are like a grotesque parody of romance: De Flores kneels to Beatrice, pleading to be allowed to serve her, presents her with a ring (with her fiancés severed finger included) “wins her love” and manages to die with her. This suggestion of a twisted romance combines with Beatrice’s tragic transformation and growing self-knowledge.
The production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, (running from January until March), plays this story lightly. The comic sub-pot, often cut or reduced in favour of the tragedy, is handled with skill and attention. Isabella (Sarah MacRae) calmly side-steps the attentions of two disguised suitors (Adam Lawrence and Brian Ferguson) and Lollio, (Pearce Quigley) De Flores’s self-serving comic counterpart. Quigley is very good in the role, bringing just the right amount of lightness to the good-natured scheming. The madmen are disturbing enough to add to the atmosphere and the comedy comes primarily from Lollio and the suitors.

Beatrice (Hattie Morahan) is thoughtless and coquettish, but never sinister. Morahan plays her as a woman whose main flaw is her self-deception; while she tells herself that she loves Alsemero (Simon Harrison) “with the eyes of judgement” she is very clearly ruled by her heart. Harrison is very well cast as Alsemero, a man as upright and attentive to social mores as De Flores is not. Harrison’s ability to be both innocent and threatening makes Beatrice’s desperation to cover her actions more plausible. Harrison is genuinely frightening in the last scene, throwing his wife around in a haze of anger, betrayal and disappointed love. His shattered belief in her purity has become a flaw in itself. This is a nicely rounded portrayal of a character who might otherwise have been rather flat.

Morahan’s best moments come in Beatrice’s interaction with De Flores (Trystan Gravelle). Beatrice’s hatred of the ugly servant may be played as haughty disdain (as Helen Mirren did in the 1974 BBC adaptation) but Morahan plays it as uncontrollable and highly personal, a primal reaction that cracks her composure; She is incapable of self-control with regard to him. Face patterned with red birthmarks that give him a satanic look, Trystan Gravelle is more than equal to his role as the creepy, isolated but ruthless man tormented by his obsession. Gravelles De Flores is bitter, cool, wilful, logical, pragmatic, crude and utterly amoral but also bleakly funny, drawing several laughs in the early scenes. During his verbal sparring with Beatrice he does not give an inch, holding up with passive-aggressive good manners. The scene is electric as she desperately insults him, face contorted, all pretence of reserve dropped. These two are mutually obsessed, but have no point of contact. Whether Beatrice’s hatred hides something else hardly seems to matter. She does not understand her feelings, she cannot even try to. It is an important flaw essential to her character, and it is good to see it played so well.

De Flores’s coolness calcifies into menace in later scenes as power dynamics are reversed. He is horribly matter of fact with his demand when he comes to collect his payment from Beatrice. Stanley Baker played De Flores as desperate and self-pitying in this scene in the BBC adaptation, but Gravelle is coldly angry. He will have what he wants. He knows he is the right man for Beatrice. The element of rape in their relationship is horribly explicit. Beatrice (Morahan) reacts to him with a frightened emotional submission that resembles Stockholm syndrome. Her tentative displays of love for him are heart-breaking, although sympathy for her is likely to frizzle out with her thoughtless dispatching of a maid who knows too much (Thalissa Teixeira, irrepressible in this supporting role).

The staging by director Dominic Dromgoole is very good, and especially atmospheric during the ghost scenes. The dance scenes are beautifully choreographed and lit, with eerie and appropriate music by Claire van Kampen. There is only one complaint that can really be made about theater this good, which is that it is theater. The Sam Wanamaker playhouse has been infuriatingly coy about filming its performances, apart from the beautiful production of The Duchess of Malfi which was filmed and aired on BBC four last year. This is a beautiful, fresh production, and deserves to be recorded.

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The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse

Staged, January 2014
Broadcast on BBC 4, 25/05/14
The recording of the Jacobean drama, staged earlier this year at the Globe theatres new Jacobean playhouse, is a bewitching production. Lit entirely by candlelight, it makes excellent and dramatically effective use of light and shadow, creating a dreamlike and violent world within the confines of the stage.
The story, simply put, is that of the Duchess, who remarries in defiance of her brothers. This simple act unleashes the rage of her incestuous twin Ferdinand (David Dawson). Along with Tis pity she’s a whore, Malfi is one of two Jacobean dramas that seem to resonate strongly for our own time. The treatment of corruption, power, romance, gothic horror and a central powerful heroine speaks to a modern audience as strongly as it ever has.
Gemma Arterton is mesmerising in the main role, depicting the Duchess as a flighty young girl forced to mature by the ensuing tragedy. Dawson gives an unusually pliant and fragile depiction as Ferdinand, portraying him as a psychotic man-child, vulnerable, petulant and dangerous. Sean Gilders Bosola plays off well against him as a gruff, introspective killer in the pay of a moneyed epicurean. James Garnon plays the Cardinal with a sort of nonchalant malevolence.
The production is complemented by excellent and well-researched music, courtesy of Claire Van Kampen, and some well-choreographed dance scenes. The essential ingredient of the play- the sense of tragedy – is properly conveyed through the atmosphere. During the Duchesses imprisonment, the direction gave the sense of having stepped into someone else’s nightmare; the dance of madmen, the ‘votive’ posing of her families corpses, the executioners who bear such a strong resemblance to Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In surroundings like this, you can properly appreciate the Duchess’s inner strength in the face of her persecutors.
The action falters a little in the final scenes, which deal with the fallout of her murder, but there is a feeling of unrolling inevitability about the final coup-de-grace. Bosolas revenge on the brothers is set within a tragicomic world as opposed to the Duchess’s wholly tragic one. Ferdinand rushes shrieking and growling about the stage; the madness we have sensed beneath the surface has now utterly consumed him. James Garnons’ Cardinal has a particular kind of malevolence. Shifted to the foreground in the last quarter of the play, Garnon plays the Cardinal with a lightness and humour that is ultimately very effective; This is a man, you feel, who does not even have the decency to take his own evil seriously. Nonchalantly plotting and killing his way through the last act, Garnon goes out on a joke among the corpses of those who have fallen victim, ultimately, to his actions. An irony that encapsulates the brilliance of this excellent production.

David Dawson and Gemma Arterton as the twins, with James Garnon in the background. No copyright infringement intended. Original source http://cdn.images.express.co.uk

 

The Duchess of Malfi: Feminism and identity

Gemma Arterton as the Duchess – Shakesperesglobe.com

The Duchess of Malfi, a tragedy written by one of Shakesperes greatest contemporaries, may be seen as a sort of feminist narrative, which I will examine here. The plot, simply put, is the story of a widow who marries again in defiance of her brothers. Ferdinand, her twin, imprisons and tortures her, attempting to break her spirit before he kills her. The issue of identity, of perception, is a major theme in the play with relation to the Duchess herself. Throughout the plot the Duchess is trying to assert the identity she has created for herself – that of a loving wife and mother – against the identities forced on her by her brothers, and by society at large.

One of the major factors in the tragedy of Ferdinand and the Duchess’s relationship is Ferdinand’s restricting of his sisters’ identity. He allows her no scope to exist as a woman. For Ferdinand, the Duchess may exist as a Duchess, a political figure; she may exist as his sister. She may exist as a (chaste) widow, like the ‘figure cut in alabaster’ that kneels over her husband’s tomb (Act I scene II). This identity Ferdinand has created for her, of a thing to be ‘caged up like a holy relic’ is unnatural to the Duchess, stifling. As she says, she has ‘youth and a little beauty’* – why should she not act naturally, as a woman? But any transgression of the limits Ferdinand sets for her, result in the imposition of another identity, every bit as false as the other:

Ferdinand: A sister damn’d; she’s loose i’th’ hilts,
Grown a notorious strumpet[…]
She hath had most cunning bawds to serve her turn,
And more secure conveyances for lust,
Than towns of garrison for service.
-Act II scene V

The woman Ferdinand conjures up in this scene is a whore, who will casually tumble “some strong-thigh’d bargeman/Or one o’th’ wood-yard, that can quoit the sledge/Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire/That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.” The whorishness assumed by Ferdinand is utterly alien to the Duchess’s nature, as evidenced in Act I scene II – her concern in that scene is with marriage in the spiritual sense. She asks her new husband to ‘lay a naked sword between us/To keep us chaste’ presumably until the marriage has been formalized in the church. She is established deliberately as the last woman to behave as Ferdinand assumes. The false identity Ferdinand imposes on her in this scene seems to reflect the imprisonment he later imposes; restrictive, abusive, misogynistic in tone.

The brutality that characterizes Ferdinand and his attitude to the Duchess contrasts with the gentle warmth characteristic of her own, self-created identity:

Duchess: This is flesh and blood, sir;
‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster,
Kneels at my husband’s tomb.

– Act I scene II

indexGemma Arterton as the Duchess. No copyright infringement intended. Source: Thisweek.co.uk

The tenderness and wit of the ‘domestic’ scenes with her husband serve as a backdrop for the Duchess’s self-created identity. To herself she is a woman, a wife, and a mother. She is a private figure first, a social and political figure second. What the brothers demand of her is the suppression of the private self, which is a very large part of her self-identity, and her actions are a defiance of that.

Overall, the narrative on one level is that of struggle, attempted suppression of the Duchesses identity, the imposition of false identities in place of her own. Her triumph, as a wife and mother, is a sort of moral triumph over false identity; her son will inherit everything, and Fernand’s torture, while cruel, never forces her to renounce her identity. On the contrary, her last request to her servant Cariola “look thou giv’st my little boy/Some syrup for his cold, and let the girl/Say her prayers ere she sleep .”** Is a final assertion of her chosen identity as a wife and mother.

* Act III Scene II

**Act IV, Scene II