Thomas Middleton was no romantic idealist. Rape, incest and sexual politics are all themes of his dark, disturbing play Women Beware Women.
It seems an unusual choice for a female director, though perhaps an empowering one. Marianne Elliott has taken on an emotionally complex play in which the four principal women in this predominantly male cast are both manipulative and manipulated, victims and transgressors.
It starts where Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet left off: newlyweds Bianca and Leantio have eloped from another city back to Leantio’s mother’s home where they hope to settle into married life. But the virginal, innocent Bianca catches the eye of the Duke. With Leantio away working, their wealthy neighbour, Livia, invites Bianca and her mother-in-law to dinner, but it is a trap: Bianca is ensnared by the Duke who rapes her.
Would any woman allow – in fact, organise – the rape of another? This unbelievable element of Middleton’s scenario is only compounded by Bianca’s behaviour afterwards; though angry and confused, she nevertheless lets herself be swayed by the Duke’s wealth and social advantages – advantages she does not get from the young Leantio – and soon becomes his mistress.
Lauren O’Neil as Bianca does her best to depict the contradictory feelings of the young bride, who ultimately sells her soul to her attacker. Tilly Tremayne, as her mother-in-law, is so easily wooed by good food and wine that she shuts her eyes to the arranged attack. But it is Harriet Walter’s devious Livia who is the orchestrator of all. A cunning, conniving, black widow of a woman, she plays the younger females like they are pawns in her game of chess; not only does she arrange Bianca’s rape, but in a subplot she ensures that her niece Isabella will commit incest with her uncle Hippolito. But even she becomes the victim of another’s scorn after falling for the callow Leantio.
Elliott’s modern dress production creates an oppressive, disturbing atmosphere. With its black marble floors and opulent chandeliers, the Duke’s palace is both threatening and decadent, a far cry from the simple, balconied home of Leantio’s mother. Singer Wendy Nieper’s voice, interpreting Olly Fox’s slow jazz score, adds a sultry sexiness.
But Elliott saves her most impressive tricks for the end. The director’s vision culminates in an extraordinary final scene in which all the deceit, duplicity and selfishness comes to a violent head at a masked ball where the partygoers – all with murder in mind – are attended by black-winged servants. Choreographed by Arthur Pita, the characters chase and run, strangle and struggle, stab and die in a balletic orgy of violence.
This is not an easy play to watch, nor, no doubt, an easy one to stage. Middleton’s vision of humankind allows us no redemption whatsoever.