A Woman Killed with Kindness is a 1603 play by Thomas Heywood. You can read it here, if you like. I did, earlier this week. I wasn't impressed. The language is caught between Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets. It doesn't have the rich verbal texture of Shakespeare or the underlying thoughtfulness of the metaphysicals. The plot and subplot are barely connected, but scenes alternate.
The production, at the Lyttleton, is directed by Katie Mitchell. I'd seen one of her plays before, a production of The Trojan Women. It seemed to me at the time that the production embodied a theory of drama, rather than a view of the play itself. From reviews of other plays it seemed that she had a strange realist view, where the characters quite obviously are talking to each other, not to the audience. She combined this, however, with formalist elements, such as closely choreographed movement, and use of unrealistic music.
I'd read that the production was just over two hours long, with no interval. Theatres don't like not having an interval - it reduces bar takings - so if a director is going non-stop, is it because she fears the audience will leave at half-time?
So, I was prepared for the worst.I even thought of not going, but staying at home, protecting my little corner of Catford from any remaining looters. But I recognised that as paranoia, so took the very slow bus to Waterloo.
And I'm glad I did. I still don't think the play's all that. But that makes it an ideal vehicle for a tendentious production. Mitchell's production is distinctly feminist, picking up on the irony of the play's title and extending it, so that you have, in a sense, two women killed by kindness. It's not entirely convincing, because the two central women aren't given good enough texts. It means that one of the best passages I noted in reading the play, a speech by Frankford, is savagely cut:
Most of this goes. It's OK to do this, of course, but I wonder if it oversimplifies things.A general silence hath surpris'd the house,
And this is the last door. Astonishment,
Fear, and amazement, beat upon my heart,Even as a madman beats upon a drum.Oh, keep my eyes, you Heavens, before I enter,
From any sight that may transfix my soul;
Or, if there be so black a spectacle,
Oh, strike mine eyes stark blind; or if not so,Lend me such patience to digest my grief,That I may keep this white and virgin hand
From any violent outrage, or red murder! —
And with that prayer I enter.
The staging is striking, and a neat solution to the play's structure. Effectively two sets in one, you have a doll's house view of the public areas of the two locations: the shabby old-money home of the Mountfords, and the new (1920's style) house of the Frankfords. And there was a really stunning final piece of staging. It's as usual a bit worrying, though, when the sets are what you most remember.
There were some of Katie Mitchell's apparent predilections: several times the arrangement of furniture seems to be reinforcing the fourth wall, but less annoyingly here than in The Trojan Women. And her use of choreography to indicate passage of time was generally efficient and effective.
Let's look at some reviews. Lyn Gardner, in the Guardian, doesn't seem to have a lot to say, frankly. Charles Spencer, in the Telegraph, isn't as dim as usual (translation: he has pretty much the same opinion as me), but seems to have missed the chance to have an interval drink. (I didn't find the lack of an interval a problem, by the way: a break would have ruined the play.) Paul Taylor, in the Independent, is the most enthusiastic reviewer, but doesn't quite explain why. I think it's fair to summarise their response, like mine, as being aware that Mitchell is trying to do something very interesting, but not completely succeeding.