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A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National Theatre, London

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A Woman Killed with Kindness
by Thomas Heywood

Directed by Katie Mitchell
National Theatre, London

Cast:
Master Wendoll –
Sebastian Armesto
Sir Charles Mountford –
Leo Bill
Ensemble —
Nick Blakeley
Master Cranwell —
Louis Brooke
Jane Trubkin —
Josie Daxter
Cicely —
Kate Duchêne
Sir Francis Acton —
Nick Fletcher
Nicholas —
Gawn Grainger
Ensemble —
Tom Kay
Isabel Motley —
Esther McAuley
Susan Mountford —
Sandy McDade
Jenkin —
Rob Ostlere
Roger Spigot —
Leighton Pugh
John Frankford —
Paul Ready
Master Malby —
Hugh Sachs
Master Shafton —
George Taylor
Anne Frankford —
Liz White
Thomas –
Gilbert Wynne

Whether or not Charles Lamb was over-generous in calling Heywood “Shakespeare in prose,” it quickly becomes evident watching Katie Mitchell’s production of his best work A Woman Killed With Kindness (first performed in 1603) that neither director nor cast have much faith in his literary merits. Frenetic stage action across an expensively exquisite split-set by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer aims to literally bulk out what the company clearly believes is an insubstantial text, one merely possessing salacious plot elements for a prurient modern audience seeking high-brow soap-opera. In the comfortable house to the right we have the unhappy marriage of John Frankford and his wife, destroyed by her infidelity with their houseguest, Wendoll, while she is heavily pregnant. To the left, in a grander but colder manor, Anne’s brother Sir Francis Acton engages in an altogether less lusty and consenting relationship with Susan, the woman he is offered as compensation for bailing her murderer brother Sir Charles Mountford – by Charles himself.

I hoped the decision to update the play to the Edwardian era would add something insightful to this promising material. But from the moment the curtain rises and we are immersed in chandeliers, oil paintings and oiled hair, flowers, pianos, cut-glass (including the accents), and to-ing and fro-ing servants in aprons waiting on moustachioed aristos, the discomfiting feeling dawns that the production exists entirely as a result of ITV’s inexplicably successful Downton Abbey and the BBC’s Upstairs Downstairs. The 1910s have never been so “now,” and Katie Mitchell seems to be following the depressing trend in recent years of theatre piggybacking on popular television and its stars in the hope of having a guaranteed audience. So we have gossiping servants decorating the Christmas tree, and far more attention lavished on household management than the management of Heywood’s words. The anachronistic insertions words like “piano” sit uneasily alongside references to spurs and saddling horses, yet oddly given this loose treatment of the text no reference is made to World War One or to the Suffragette movement, the latter presumably the reason for the specific 1919 setting and yet never referenced explicitly or even implicitly. Instead, the set’s homely nick-nacks ironically represent Mitchell’s retreat from both the text and its social contexts, Edwardian and Renaissance; aesthetic usurps substance, and if Mitchell is aware of this she doesn’t mind, so distracted is she by a porcelain vase here, a sweeping servant there. The confused attitude to periodisation is encapsulated in Aleks Sierz’s discussion in the programme of Renaissance ‘domestic tragedies’ heralding “the start of our national obsession with material goods. And that seems very contemporary” – it may seem so for 2011, but immediately after the catastrophic casualties and financial disarray of WWI? It’s a confusion that extends to the audience’s divided attention across the set’s two sides and two levels, two staircases and eight doorways, tiresomely swarming and slamming with servants and masters. I couldn’t even hear the line “All things on earth thus change, some up, some down” without immediately thinking of Uptown Downton or Uppetty Abbey or whatever, as though they were the integral framework Heywood’s play was built on and not vice-versa.

Set Design by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

Not that time is wasted in attending to something as apparently trivial as the play’s language: it took me almost half an hour to realise that Lamb’s statement was not literal and Heywood did in fact write verse. Whether by choice or inability, the actors eschewed rhythmical annunciation, resulting in, variously, deflated or disconcertingly staccato dialogue. Much of the speech was scrappy and thrown away, like old butler Nick’s (Gawn Grainger) professed sorrow at Anne’s outcast state, which was barely audible and curiously monotone. Similarly, a tense card game suffused with pointed double-entendres is inexplicably gabbled, destroying what should have been slow-burning seat-shifting tension – it was as though everyone wanted to get through it all and do something more useful with their evening (the feeling was catching). Inattention to diction also does Heywood a disservice in obscuring some moments of genuine poetry in his admittedly variable, oft-“prosaic,” writing. Paul Ready as Frankford easily stood out as the most nuanced and careful practitioner of the verse in both his contemplative and ireful moods. His measured delivery after discovering Anne’s infidelity was a rare drop in the exhausting pace and allowed the poignant simplicity of the text to speak: “That Time could turn up his swift sandy glass,/To untell the days, and to redeem these hours…”

Ultimately, near-frenzied extraneous stage action gets in the way of the language and characterisation, feeling and thematic resonance. The overcrowded scenes suggest farce rather than tragedy, creating major tonal inconsistencies. Most notably, when Acton saw Susan for the first time and, shocked by the intensity of his attraction to her, declared all-consuming love, the audience laughed throughout the scene, clearly believing the speech to be ironic. It was obvious no-one knew how to respond to this subplot because Acton’s sincerity was always doubted, undermining the straightforward reading given in the programme synopsis. Similarly, Frankford’s feigned leave-taking to trick Anne and Wendoll into sharing the marital bed where he can unmask them is played for laughs, seemingly forgetting that Frankford’s ruse instigates the tragic denouement and Anne’s ultimate self-destruction by starvation. The scene had neither the requisite sinister foreboding nor poignant regretfulness. These misdirections are particularly frustrating given other adept variations in tone, as when the initially comic, endearingly drunk Charles Mountford – superbly played by a stooping runtish Leo Bill – later explodes in terrifying fury on discovering his debt to Acton. The farce elements also diminish moments of graphic naturalism – which Sierz identifies as Heywood’s particular genre – such as the wedding-night scene when Anne staggers downstairs in her bloodstained nightgown, a note of visceral realism that never recurs. In turn, the farce and naturalism jar with hyper-stylised scene changes, where the stiff Susan and Anne are lifted up by, and fall into, others’ arms. I guess these movements symbolised the women’s clockwork servitude to men, to domestic routine and to the mechanics of tragedy – they had clearly been given more thought than the play’s language or feeling.

The main problem with the parallel stylised positioning of the women in these transitions – as indeed with their side-by-side action and music throughout – is that it fails to address the fundamental differences in their experiences of ‘domestic tragedy’: Susan may be stifled and static in terms of her social (im)position in the course of the play as becomes a petrified wife, but Anne’s despair is due to her unstable ever-shifting roles, from wife to adulteress to mother to outcast to penitent martyr – her narrative is one of literal and psychological transformation. Susan may exhibit the agony of having your will crushed, but Anne demonstrates the perils of giving your will all-too-free reign for both self-indulgence and denial. Hence the tragedy that cruel kindness is not only meted out by others, but by oneself. The highly ambivalent and subtly different natures of both women’s circumstances are obfuscated by Mitchell’s simplistic implications of equivalence as they relentlessly pore over pianos and scuttle up staircases. The desire for a didactic feminist rendering with a very 2011 sensibility loses so much of both the original’s Renaissance-era interest and that of the Edwardian updating. Mitchell inserts actions and reassigns dialogue that fundamentally change – and I would argue lessen – Heywood’s meaning, most crucially in the final scene where we are denied the original’s poignant end note of ineffectual but necessary reconciliation. That this rapprochement alleviates Anne’s suffering yet is also the final insult encapsulates Heywood’s wonderful ambivalence that merits Lamb’s comparing him with Shakespeare. Mitchell sadly doesn’t recognise or doesn’t want to recognise this ambivalence in pursuit of an unambiguous rallying-cry for women’s rights that even ITV-viewing hoi polloi will understand. It also didn’t help Mitchell’s cause that the female protagonists are played by two of the weakest actors in Liz White (Anne) and Sandy McDade (Susan), whose persistent shoutiness made them appear unfeeling and forced. What Wendoll and Acton saw in either of them is anyone’s guess – no wonder all the love scenes were so unconvincing.

The actors throughout felt spatially and emotionally remote, frequently turning away from the audience when they spoke and hardly ever venturing downstage. Regardless of their shortcomings, though, psychological subtlety isn’t conveyed because it isn’t sought by Mitchell’s direction. If you can’t wait for the new series of Downton Abbey, go along to plan new décor for your sitting room as you ponder women’s jolly hard times, but don’t expect to acquire an appreciation of Heywood’s literariness and his ability to move, or an understanding of his complex response to Renaissance gender politics and how it is pertinent today. Ironically the production does succeed in making you want to get your hands on the original – to read what you’re missing.

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  1. A Woman Killed with Kindness, Reviewed by Huntley Dent - Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts