Women Beware Women – Royal National Theatre

It was the second night in a row for Jacobean plays and not a situation that was approached with whole hearted joy. When the news that it was a complex story spread over 3 hours the heart sank even further.

Thomas Middleton’s work is perhaps less well known than the work of his contemporaries but is beginning to receive renewed attention. In director Marianne Elliott’s lavish production of Women Beware Women on the Olivier stage his work takes on an epic quality.

Set against Lez Brotherston’s gothic columned revolving set, this is a lavish and visual appealing production. Performances from the entire cast are impressive with Harriet Walter, Samuel Barnett and Vanessa Kirby particularly noteworthy. The difficult verse is handled with aplomb and cast seem to revel in the dark horror of the piece.

All good so far then but the problem here for anyone coming to the piece new is that is it just so complex as to render it virtually impenetrable. Revenge, mistaken identities, rape, seduction, incest, two overlapping stories… all conspire to make for a brain aching evening. Yes theatre should be challenging and perhaps Shakespeare would be equally as baffling if we were not so aware of the plots, but this production makes little attempt to make the complex assessable. Just when you think you have grasped the plot the surreal, drug induced, danced, final blood-bath scene adds on more confusion.

Bits of the plot are picked up and you can appreciated the craft of it but overheard conversations at the end of the show suggest many where left with a ‘what was that about’ feeling.

Women Beware Women is worth catching for a lesson into how to stage and act a piece from this era but do familiarise yourself with the text before you attend or risk suffering a severe brain ache as you try to follow this complex production.

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