If the Lyttelton theatre were to see a psychiatrist, it would probably be diagnosed as bi-polar. On one night it houses the fun-filled hilarity of One Man, Two Guvnors, the next the sapping tragedy of A Woman Killed With Kindness.
Thomas Heywood’s 17th century domestic drama is bleaker than a midwinter in which earth stood hard as iron and water was like a stone.
It starts out happily enough, on one side of the Vicki Mortimer/Lizzie Clachan-designed split screen style stage at least, with a wedding celebration full of joy and embarrassing drunken platitudes. On the other, Sandy McDade’s Susan looks lonely, worried and forlorn.
It’s a prescient enough expression for the devoted sister of Leo Bill’s abhorrent Sir Charles Mountford. As the result of a wedding day bet, her life is about to nosedive faster than one of her brother’s swooping hawks.
Back in the land of wedded bliss, everything is not as sweet as it could be. With a husband busier than an inattentive bee, Liz White’s Anne is left rather too often with employed houseguest Wendoll (Sebastian Armesto) and, though pregnant with her husband’s twins, is drawn to her distinctly dishonourable stand-in master.
On both sides of the stage, in parallel country houses, with similar servants running similar rings, the tragic plot is played out.
Director Katie Mitchell has a reputation for stamping her mark clearly on a production. Yet, apart from the heavily choreographed scene changes, full of repetition and symbolism, the action, set in 1919, is played straight, with little in the way of artistic flourishes to draw the eye away from the moneyed country gents who have little care for the wellbeing of their female companions.
Everyone, as you may have gathered, does not live happily ever after. It is less a barrel of laughs than a thimble of smiles. But audiences seeking light-hearted frivolity have the Lyttelton’s other show. Those seeking something harder work but harder hitting, something bleak for midsummer, have A Woman Killed With Kindness.