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The Changeling

Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Helen Mirren at the BBC
(2007)

Anthony Page's well judged period version of this classic tragedy was first seen as a BBC Play of the Month in 1974. It features Helen Mirren as Beatrice-Joanna, a noblewoman in Alicante who makes Lady Macbeth look a real sweetie.

Written in 1622, it is unusual for its period in having a female protagonist but this gives the future Dame a chance to shine, which she does showing the kind of acting ability that has maintained her popularity for over three decades culminating in regal triumphs as two Queen Elizabeths.

Several of the other younger faces will be familiar, as Page cast a number of actors who later went on to greater prominence, including Sting's future wife and an actor currently playing Max in The Homecoming at the Almeida. More of them later.

In an early scene, the flighty young lady has enjoyed an assignation with Alsemero, played by a young-looking Brian Cox betraying rather more of the Scottish origins than he does nowadays. Therefore her father's decision that she should enter into a diplomatic marriage to Malcolm Reynolds' Alonzo de Piracquo does not go down well.

Where other women would have bowed to their father's wishes or at worst complained and then married, Beatrice-Joanna proves more wilful. She persuades her smitten admirer de Flores, played by Stanley Baker, that rather than being repelled by his ugliness, the only thing that stands between them and marital bliss is the foreigner.

He is soon egged on to bloody murder and rewarded with his lady's honour. This presents a further problem when a marriage is contracted to Alsemero. He worries about his future wife's virginity but is eventually satisfied, thanks to her acting abilities but also a replacement in the marital bed, Frances Tomelty (a former Mrs Sting) playing her servant, Diaphanta, in a scene lifted from Measure for Measure.

The problems build, as they inevitably must following a murder, with the dead man's brother (played by TP McKenna) on the trail and even a brief appearance by a post-Shakespearean ghost.

The main action is then paralleled by scenes set in a madhouse where a seemingly insane man, Kenneth Cranham (Max today) as Antonio falls for doctor's wife, Susan Penhaligon's Isabella. He is soon brought down to earth by the sadistic keeper of the mad, portrayed with relish by Norman Rossington.

With attractive costumes and a really convincing period feel, this is a worthy, suitably chilling television version of a classic, most recently seen in a version by Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher