Women Beware Women
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Swan, Stratford
Writing for the Elizabethan theatre could be a tricky prospect, not least because young boys had to play women's parts. William Shakespeare, for instance, wrote few roles for older women and his heroines tend to be of tender years. But Thomas Middleton didn't let problems of age and gender get in his way.
He must have foreseen the days when women would have been allowed to appear on the stage because Women Beware Women, written only a few years after Shakespeare's death, features four strong female roles, two for the more mature actress as well as two for younger women.
At this point let's give casting director Amy Ball a mention. It's hard to find fault with any of the large cast of Women Beware Women. And in the hands of director Laurence Boswell, the play is spectacularly successful.
Anyone who thinks Shakespeare is boring and Middleton must be likewise because he's one of the Bard's contemporaries is in for a shock. Middleton's language in Women Beware Women is comprehensible, the plot is credible and the characters fascinating although flawed.
Women Beware Women is a moral tale illustrating the tragic results of the search for wealth, power and lust.
Bianca, the daughter of a wealthy Venetian family, elopes to Florence with a poor merchant's clerk Leantio. While he's away on business the Duke of Florence sees Bianca and is determined to seduce her. Bianca leaves her husband when the Duke offers her a life of luxury.
In a separate plot line, Isabella is faced with going into a loveless marriage with a rich yet stupid ward. She's appalled when her uncle Hippolito confesses his love for her. But her aunt, Hippolito's sister, cunningly persuades Isabella that she isn't related by blood, so she's tricked into an incestuous relationship with her uncle.
Penelope Wilton is superb as Livia, Isabella's aunt, who throws herself upon Leantio after he's been cuckolded by the Duke. Susan Engel is similarly affecting as Leantio's mother, concerned that her son has married in haste until she realises how wealthy Bianca is.
As for the younger women, Hayley Attwell is spirited as Bianca once she sees how rosy her future could be with the Duke. Emma Cunniffe changes from showing reluctance to enter an arranged marriage through being totally shocked to discover her uncle's feelings for her to accepting her fate because it allows her to be just as deceitful as some of her acquaintances.
There's plenty of deceit and corruption which culminates in death during a masque performed for the Duke and his new wife.
However, the whole cast are almost eclipsed by Tim Pigott-Smith's portrayal of the Duke. It's not a huge part but Pigott-Smith has such a massive stage presence that your eyes are drawn to him whenever he makes an entrance. He is passionate as he tries to seduce Bianca and convincingly appears to be converted when his brother the Lord Cardinal lambasts him for his adulterous behaviour - only to resort to murder to satisfy his desires.
There are also excellent performances from Rob Edwards as the deeply troubled Hippolito; Elliot Cowan as the wronged yet self-centred Leantio; Bruce Mackinnon as the gawky, moronic ward; and Paul Rider as the ward's man Sordido.
The script is hugely funny before the tragic end and is played out on Richard Hudson's clever set with a huge screen which swivels round whenever a scene changes.
It's a magnificent production. What a pity that it's not scheduled for a transfer to the West End.
"Women Beware Women" runs until April 1st
Reviewer: Steve Orme