Theatre review: Women Beware Women

Posted on: 03 June 2010 by Mark O'haire

Corruption, betrayal, intrigue and murder abound in Thomas Middleton’s 1621 play Women Beware Women, directed by Marianne Elliott at the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium.

In the Italian court, where wealth secures power and power secures lust the lascivious Duke can play wherever he chooses. He catches the eye of another’s exquisite bride, an heiress called Bianca, whose husband keeps her locked away like a prized jewel. But can a glance secure her fate, a bribe appease her husband?

Meanwhile, Isabella’s father wants to marry her off to a rich young idiot, while Hippolito has won her trust and desires her truly. However, he is her uncle. These are her choices. If twice-widowed Livia, Isabella’s aunt, conspires against her sex to gain a little clout, she is only fighting to survive.

Written by Middleton, a late contemporary of Shakespeare, this adroitly plotted Jacobean tragedy deals with topics of enduring fascination such as sexual and financial greed, the sexual exploitation of women by a manipulative older woman, murderous revenge and the sexual predetermines of a man in a position of power.

Yet director Marianne Elliott has unwisely moved the action forward over 300 years to 1950s Italy. As a  result a complex plot becomes confusing while the mixture of black humour and tragedy sit awkwardly together and the play loses its power and only really comes to life after about an hour. However the plot moves at a brisk speed and the whirl of events is dizzying so we are never bored.

In a strong NT ensemble Harriet Walter stands out as the unscrupulous Livia, the cunning widow who ensnares two young women in a plan to further her own interests, a part she attacks with great relish. Lauren O’Neil makes a sympathetic Bianca, while Vanessa Kirby convinces as Isabella, Richard Lintern makes a suitably sleazy Duke of Florence and Raymond Coulthard cuts a dash as Hippolito.

By Laurence Green

Where: National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium

When: plays in repertory until 4 July 2010

Box Office: 020 7452 3000

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