Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
English Touring Theatre in a co-production with Nottingham Playhouse
Stephen Unwin founded English Touring Theatre in 1993 and has developed it into one of the country's leading companies. He's into his final season with ETT; he will definitely be a hard act to emulate.
I remember seeing his superb production of King Lear, with Timothy West in the title role, in 2002 at Buxton Opera House and Unwin's pacy, uncluttered Hamlet with Ed Stoppard in the same venue in 2005.
Now Unwin has brought to the stage the Jacobean revenge tragedy The Changeling, a play he believes to be the greatest tragedy in English after Shakespeare.
Middleton and Rowley came shortly after the Bard - The Changeling was first performed in 1622 - and comparisons with Shakespeare's works are unavoidable.
There's the ghostly apparition of a character who's been killed - used by Shakespeare more than once - while there are echoes of Hamlet when Alsemero asks Beatrice-Joanna "are you honest?" and Lollio's speech about the seven times of day is reminiscent of Jaques' seven ages of man observations in his "All the world's a stage" oration during As You Like It.
The main difference though between Shakespeare's plays and The Changeling is there are stronger parts for women. The role of Beatrice-Joanna is a far more complex one than any of Shakespeare's creations and there are also telling contributions from Isabella and Diaphanta. That's especially remarkable when you consider those parts would have been played by boys - women weren't allowed on the stage until after 1660.
The Changeling has twin plots: in the first, Beatrice-Joanna wants to marry Alsemero but her father Vermandero has arranged a marriage with Alonso de Piracquo. She asks her servant, deformed Deflores, to get rid of the groom-to-be. Deflores does as he's told but doesn't want to be paid in gold - he wants Beatrice-Joanna for himself. She detests him yet needs him if she's to succeed in her scheming, cheating ways.
In the sub-plot, asylum keeper Alibius shows no affection to his wife Isabella yet two young men, Franciscus and Antonio, are obsessed with her and have to pretend to be mad so that they can see her. Alibius's servant Lollio also wants her. But Isabella remains faithful.
The main action shows how sexual desire can lead to murder and retribution; the secondary theme proves it can lead only to humiliation.
Unwin has assembled a cast of thirteen who throw themselves into the production with enthusiasm, energy and vibrancy.
Adrian Schiller is superb as Deflores: his evil nature is neither forced nor false; it's so matter-of-fact that it seems the most natural thing in the world to kill a love rival. He also thinks nothing of cutting off Alonso's finger when he wants to steal the dead man's irremovable ring - an act which brought gasps from the audience on the night that I saw the play.
There's also a spirited, heartfelt performance from Anna Koval as Beatrice-Joanna, showing maturity beyond her inexperience in her first professional role after graduating from RADA.
I also enjoyed Ken Bones as authoritative Vermandero; Terrence Hardiman, the dignified and somewhat aloof Alibius; Gideon Turner (Alsemero) who rails against Beatrice-Joanna almost uncontrollably when he discovers that she was behind Alonso's death; David Cardy (Lollio) who keeps everyone under control in the asylum; and Leon Williams and Geoffrey Lumb as the pair who feign madness.
Paul Wills has come up with a twin-level set which is moody, murky and cheerless, establishing an atmosphere in which villainy prospers until the extremely bloody end.
English Touring Theatre have come up with an admirable presentation of a play that may not be to everyone's taste but whose subject matter is timeless.
Middleton and Rowley's language doesn't quite live up to the richness of the Bard's words but The Changeling is an intriguing observational drama full of engaging yet flawed characters that vividly comes to life in Stephen Unwin's eminently capable hands.
"The Changeling" runs at Nottingham until October 13th and then tours to Cambridge, Malvern, Guildford, Liverpool, Brighton, Truro and Salford Quays until December 1st
Reviewer: Steve Orme