Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Changeling at Southwark Playhouse

Snip, snip. Snip, snip. Michael Oakley’s production of Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy has taken the secateurs to the text. Gone is the madhouse subplot, leaving only the story of the duplicitous Beatrice-Joanna and her murky sexual entanglement with the bitter, volatile De Flores. But this secondary narrative strand does more than provide a comic counterweight to the central story, it feeds into it, shadowing it, paralleling it. Insanity takes many shapes, many forms in this play.

Oakley’s second conceptual experiment is to take the play’s many asides and turn them into pre-recorded voice over. Oakley, a past JMK Award-winner, admits in his programme notes that this is a risk, and the resulting disconnect between the internal and external is problematic. In theory the idea does chime nicely with the play’s use of doubling, but the recorded sequences seem flattened out and the production never quite solves the problem of how the cast should interact with them – they occasional resort to brow furrowing and other ‘thinking’ signifiers.

The production has been given a contemporary setting complete with seemingly obligatory CCTV monitors. There’s something vaguely 1980s about the aesthetic with its grubby filing cabinets and Beatrice-Joanna’s skin-tight black lace dress; a collision of Basic Instinct and Sliver. But the surveillance theme isn’t really picked up on, the monitors are only really brought into play during one scene, and the production suffers from a lack of claustrophobia, from a sense of these two people being unable to escape each other’s hold.

David Caves simmers as De Flores, a born gentleman forced to serve others; resentment permeates his every gesture and when he gets a chance to right what he sees as a slight, an insult, he leaps at it, relishes it. He seems to compensate for both his reduced circumstances and his marked face, his perceived ‘ugliness’, through hyper-masculine behaviour. He is not a hunched Caliban figure, muscles bulge beneath his short-sleeved white shirt; he even (just about) pulls off De Flores’ penchant for glove-sniffing.

Fiona Hampton is not quite as convincing as the fickle Beatrice-Joanna, a woman happy to manipulate De Flores into getting what she wants (having the unfortunate Alonzo iced so she can marry the dashing Alsemero), but who fails to anticipate the repercussions of her actions. While she is stronger in the early scenes, clearly enjoying the power she has over him, and she succeeds in showing how Beatrice-Joanna’s initial distaste for the man evolves into something more complex and interesting, as the situation escalates her performance seems to lose power.

Again, claustrophobia – or the lack of it – is an issue. Shorn of context, Beatrice-Joanna no longer seems backed into a corner by circumstance and her choices make even less sense. By ditching the madhouse subplot, the more blackly comic elements of the play, particularly the delicious absurdity of the virginity test, feel adrift and more than a little silly. There’s a strong case to be made for updating The Changeling; with its themes of social hierarchy – Beatrice Joanna’s sense of entitlement pitched against De Flores’ resentment – it has a particular contemporary resonance; but Oakley’s production is neither as sexually or as emotionally charged as it might be and while his approach to sound design is intriguing it also doesn’t quite make a case for itself.

Reviewed for Exeunt

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