In Cheek By Jowl’s 25th year, the innovative theatre company has found a home at the Barbican, where it will present two pieces each year for the next three years, one in English and one in Russian. The first outing of this new partnership is Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean tale of murder, madness, malice and love, The Changeling. Matthew Amer attended the first night…
On a darkened stage, the cast sit on orange plastic chairs as the opening scenes of The Changeling are played out. Those not involved do not move, but remain as still as statues as they are talked about and around, until De Flores and Beatrice Joanna have their first scene together, when the pair are left alone to begin their downfall.
Beatrice Joanna is betrothed to Alonzo de Piracquo, but when she sets eyes on Alsemero for the first time her heart is won over by the newcomer. The problem, of course, is that when your father has promised you to someone else you cannot simply change your mind. Enter the ugly, mild-hearted De Flores, who is obsessed with his mistress Beatrice Joanna; she, in turn, hates him. With the aid of some plastic-handled office scissors, he sees that husband-to-be Piracquo is no longer a problem.
From there, the murderer and his ‘accessory’ begin the descent to tragedy. Olivia Williams’s Beatrice Joanna moves from hard-hearted despiser of De Flores to brooding sexuality; she physically needs the man who would go to such lengths to save her. This impacts upon her new marriage to Tom Hiddleston’s honest, trusting Alsemero, who she fears will discover her affair with De Flores and lack of virginity. Alsemero, in turn, leaves behind his naïve past as the evidence against his new wife stacks up.
Will Keen’s softly-spoken De Flores changes from the much-admired and trusted servant to hard-hearted killer who will take what he believes to be his reward. Keen instils De Flores with the temperament of a Hannibal Lecter style killer; calm, calculating but vicious and mortally precise.
A sub-plot sees two perfectly sane men take on the façade of a madman and a fool to gain entrance to an asylum and seduce the elderly doctor’s young wife. While murderous goings on in the castle take place under the gloomiest of murky lighting, the lighter affairs at the asylum are played out under clinical brightness, but are no less telling about man’s ability to change for and because of love.
The show is billed as suitable for those aged over 16, though many of last night’s audience were on the very cusp of that age suggestion, as they saw and heard fingers being severed, lustful seduction bordering on rape and numerous sexual encounters both real and imagined.
Cheek By Jowl’s interpretation of this English classic is not one for the faint-hearted.