Heywood’s play begins on a joyous note, on the day of the wedding of John Frankford. But the celebratory spirit of these opening moments is soon diluted when his wife Anne embarks on an affair with Wendoll, a friend of her husband who has been invited to stay at their home and treat it - and its contents - as his own. The idea of women as property is made explicit in the secondary but more potent account of Sir Charles, the wealthy landowner imprisoned for his shooting a servant, who in order to free himself from mounting debts, offers up his sister, Susan, to a man she can’t abide.
Mitchell’s production continually contrasts these two women and their predicaments. The events have been transplanted from the early seventeenth century to 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when social structures were shifting. The Representation of the People Act had recently granted women over 30 the right to vote, but both of these women remain trapped by entrenched social codes, the need for female purity most pressing among them. Whiteness. The wedding gown takes on a toxic symbolism as Susan stands shrouded in lace awaiting the man Charles would have her give herself to and, on the night of her wedding, Anne’s white nightdress is tainted by her own blood, so it seems apt that, later, when her husband interrupts her in bed with Wendoll, she emerges from the room clad in turquoise silk. Heywood’s play offers little in the way of insight into why Anne gives herself so quickly to Wendoll but the walls of the Frankford home are pointedly hung with butterflies under glass. On the other side of the divide, the walls of the Mountford home are methodically stripped of their finery, of the oil paintings and the chandeliers, as their once grand family seat becomes little more than a decaying, chilly prison.
The stage space is actually split into four rather than two since both sides of Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer’s set are spread across two levels, each connected by a staircase, while Mitchell’s production plays with the vertical as much as the horizontal. Servants are forever flurrying up and down the stairs or gently ascending to the bedrooms above; in one striking moment, Susan, amid a blizzard of activity, walks slowly backwards up the stairs as if tugged by a cord. Visual paralleling also occurs between the upstairs and downstairs worlds: when Anne is in labour both Frankford and Wendoll rattle back and forth across the stage like fingers being impatiently run up and down the keys of a piano.
For all this visual intricacy, Mitchell sometimes seems to be sparring with Heywood’s play rather than dancing with it; a constant process of negotiation with the text seems to be at work. There’s wit here - when Frankford faces his wife over card table and they debate whether to play Hearts and Cheat – but the play is often merely functional, shoving its characters from point A to point B without giving much thought to the journey. It’s full of emotional lurches and leaps in plausibility and neither play nor production ever fully gets under Anne’s skin as a character, neither makes the audience grasp quite why this woman is so quick to hop into bed with Wendoll (Mitchell suggests that sex with Frankford is a brusque, abrupt affair but this feels like a tacked on explanation).
The production is better at painting the fall-out of Anne’s adultery, the pain Frankford inflicts through his stoic determination to drive his wife from her home and her children and the awful punishment she inflicts on them both as a result. There’s a continuing resonance to Anne’s decision to starve herself; a woman of appetite remains a suspect figure and self-denial is a kind of power, a means of taking control. Yet at times the production seems to be pushing too hard to make its point: the final hospital scene – which finally unites the two women’s stories – is as clinical as the space in which it is set, and an earlier scene in which Susan clutches a noose and contemplates escape, are blunt in execution and out of step with the production’s particular rhythms.
Of the performances, Paul Ready’s decent, bemused and ultimately shattered Frankford stands out, as does Sandy McDade, a still, drifting presence as Susan. But this is very much an ensemble piece, elegantly and intricately choreographed. Mitchell seems particularly interested in the relationship between servant and master, the bonds of dependence and affection, and there are always large numbers of bodies on stage, clearing dishes, serving drinks. Gawn Grainger’s turn as Frankford’s paternal, no-nonsense butler, Nicholas, provides a necessary note of warmth.
Amid the near-constant motion and the dramatic use of the domestic interior it’s the moments of connection that mark themselves out. The most memorable image, the one you are left with long after, is of these two women on either side of the wall picking out notes on the piano, briefly connecting with one another, before life spirals away from them.
Reviewed for Exeunt