A direct hit
Lyttelton, National Theatre, London
KATIE MITCHELL is possibly the only theatre director in this country whose productions are so obviously hers, you do not have to read the programme to see who directed them.
Her version of Thomas Heywood’s 1607 tragedy contains many Mitchell obsessions: the condition of women in male-dominated societies; how a play moves through time; and what happens to the characters in the unwritten sections of a work, between the scenes.
Heywood’s story concerns two wealthy households. In one, a marriage ends in rage when the husband (Paul Ready) discovers that his wife (Liz White) has been unfaithful with his house-guest. In the other, the master (Leo Bill) is jailed, first for murder, then for unpaid debts, leaving his reclusive sister Susan (Sandy McDade) at the mercy of her brother’s enemy.
The play is populated by well-to-do middle-classes rather than royalty, which was rare enough for the time in which Heywood wrote it. But his domestic naturalism was downright revolutionary. Rather than the heightened drama of state affairs, he serves up gossiping servants and bedroom intimacies, although here they take place in the drawing room.
Mitchell is (almost) no less revolutionary. The mood and the mechanics of the show are revealed in scene changes. Snap variations in Jon Clark’s warmto-wintry lighting herald passages of physical theatre during which, on more than one occasion, time is mesmerically reversed when a woman climbs a staircase backwards.
And when stagehands move the protagonists like mannequins around the exquisite interiors, the sense is of a kind of testimony being acted out, as if a crime had been committed and this play was Exhibit A.
These techniques invite judgement on the behaviour of men in a way that, under Mitchell’s direction, foreshadows Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. But whereas Ibsen’s Nora gets to leave home and slam the door on her husband, when Heywood’s Susan repeatedly bolts for the front door she is held back each time by the man who wants to marry her and the brother who sells her to him to settle his debts. It is a take on the play that wrings every last drop of irony out the title.
Sure, as is usual with Mitchell, the vision offered is probably much more that of the director than the writer – something that has caused complaints about her past productions. But it would be hard to find a more inventive and engrossing evening. ( Tel: 020 7452 3000)
Marriage ups and downs: Paul Ready and Liz White