A Woman Killed with Kindness
RNT Lyttelton Theatre
Rather than merely A Woman Killed with Kindness, Thomas Heywood's play is actually a tale of two women, though ne'er the twain shall meet. That is made obvious through the duality of the design co-created by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer.
Though the play was written at the start of the 17th Century, this two hour version is re-imagined three hundred years on in 1919.
Stage right is the austere home of brother and sister Sir Charles Mountford and Susan, respectively played by Leo Bill and Sandy McDade.
By its side is the much friendlier and more accommodating Frankford residence owned by Paul Ready's lawyer John and his new wife Anne, portrayed by Liz White.
The play suffers from a really dreadful, disjointed opening that leaves one fearful for what might follow. It really feels as if some large chunks of early exposition have been lost along the way.
Having moved into the story proper, the evening becomes rather fun, though the two parts seem like separate plays, albeit exploring similar themes from opposing perspectives.
At the Mountfords, a story having much in common with Measure for Measure is played out. Party animal Sir Charles gambles away much of the family fortune before imprisonment sees off the rest, despite the faithful, almost dog-like devotion of his skeletal sister. By a strange turn, the man that ruined him is struck dumb by Susan's beauty, though his love is spurned with bitter hatred.
Next door on stage but several hundred miles away in reality, life is much more like The Duchess of Malfi. Inexplicably, heavily pregnant Anne is seduced away from her loving husband by an oily visitor whom trusting John disastrously invites to become a house guest.
From the moment of Wendoll's arrival, wise servant Nick, given both wit and gravitas by Gawn Grainger, smells a rat and Sebastian Armesto's character duly lives up to that billing.
Once the play moves into top gear, the two stories have great dramatic impetus, just about overcoming Katie Mitchell's trademark scene changes that only occasionally contain enough mini dramas to justify their length.
The best of these sees the two women symbolically treated as props. This is a highlight, matched by a card game during which almost every aside doubles as a barbed comment about adultery.
The production always looks stylish and the plights of the two women, one faithful, the other faithless, say so much about each other. They also make an interesting statement when looked at from the perspective of three periods, those of the play's creation, its setting and our own free and easy culture where the behaviour of both women would strike us as odd for different reasons.
It is those playing the wronged that deliver the best performances, with Sandy McDade outstanding as life becomes unbearable for Susan and Paul Ready nearly matching her in John's adversity.
A Woman Killed with Kindness may not match the virtuosity of Heywood's contemporary, William Shakespeare but this iconoclastic revival is worth a try, especially as it benefits from £12 tickets sponsored by Travelex.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher