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06 June 2010

Women Beware Women

Theatre is my summer substitute for football. It gives me that same feeling of sharing experience and emotions, and the same uncertainty of outcome.

Last night was my first play of the summer: Women Beware Women at the Olivier. It's a Jacobean revenge tragedy, which means that, as the song goes, everyone ends in mincemeat. (A bit like any Millwall game.) But before that, it was quite funny. Which makes me think that it owes a lot to Blackadder. (I'm grateful to @lifeformnamedsi for planting this idea in my mind.)

Hang on a minute, you say, but surely it's the other way round. How can this play, from the 17th century, be influenced by a television comedy from the 20th century. Maybe you should phone the helpline the BBC kindly offered for people affected by the issues in this week's Doctor Who. ("Hello? Yes, I hope you can. You see, I seem to have my sense of before and after, causality and consequences, confused. And I can't sell any of my paintings. Say that again? Depression? Mental illness? No. How dare you!" Click.)

But without Blackadder I don't think the production could have been the way it was. Blackadder gave us a framework for understanding historical figures, which this production exploits. To take an example. An idiot boy, called "The Ward", is offered a young woman in marriage. As part of his examination of her suitability, he wants to know if her "underparts" are wild and hairy. Cue lots of business involving him and his servant trying to engineer a situation where they can see up her skirt. Another time he dances with his bride to be and performs a grotesque parody of sexiness.

So the first half of the play was very much in this mould. The text was spoken so that full weight was given to the obscene puns, and there was genuine laughter in the packed, sweaty theatre. In the second half, though, you have to understand the intrigue, the plots that determine who is going to kill whom and why, and that doesn't benefit from the Blackaddering. In the final scene, the director seems to have given up trying to make events clear. The Olivier revolving stage became a carousel of mayhem (and maybe we can see here influences from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. I know I can, but I can see them everywhere.) For five or ten wordless minutes there was a whirligig of stabbing, raping and poisoning. And at the end, a stage littered with bodies, and a sense of not knowing what just happened.

Not knowing what just happened isn't necessarily a bad thing of course. And you could make a case for it being of a piece with the play: events spiral out of hand in a society ungoverned by any morality. But actually that's a pretty poor resolution. It's as unsatisfactory as the superficial resolution of the play itself. The Duke's brother, a Cardinal, appears and gives the moral that without religious authority and fear of God, this is what becomes of society.

We can't take the Cardinal as the voice of truth, for historical and dramatic reasons. Historically, the role and value of a Cardinal in 1620s England would be at best ambiguous. Dramatically, he's a lightweight, and his simplistic characterisation (portrayed in his simplistic reasoning, in which human passions just don't figure) disqualifies him.

Women beware women ... A very striking feature of the play is the prominence of female characters. Three of them have an extraordinary amount of lines, and they are actively instrumental in moving on the action of the play. They either begin corrupt or become so very quickly. On the face of it, the title suggests this is a cautionary tale, but again that seems an inadequate summary.

The production's had good reviews, as far as I can see, largely because of the humour, which I shouldn't disparage. But I don't think it holds together. I think this isn't the production that will make sense of the play to a current audience, despite the help of Blackadder, David Brent and Hitchcock.

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