Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Changeling

Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Cheek By Jowl
Barbican
(2006)

Production photograph by Keith Pattison

Those who know their Shakespeare will find much to recognise and enjoy in The Changeling. Indeed, since this play was first staged a dozen years after the Stratford man's death, Middleton and Rowley might well have seen many of the plays in the First Folio.

If so, they were merely following the custom of the day in borrowing characteristics and set pieces. They did so well, writing an epic Jacobean tragedy of love and lust, with at least an eye out comedy.

The play is well served by director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, who created their Cheek by Jowl company over a quarter of a century ago but continue to produce provocative and challenging work in both English and, as we will see later in this season at the Barbican, Russian as well.

Ormerod's design features a gigantic black box some 50 yards wide primarily made up of the backstage areas behind the normal Barbican Theatre. This has been converted into a large studio with temporary seating accommodating around 400 visitors in reasonable comfort.

Minimalism is the order of the day, as Ormerod uses few props beyond a small area that is arranged like a night-watchman's depressing office. The costumes feature sharp modern dress with a concentration on black and white, never more effective than when the heroine's sexy white nightdress is besmirched by a red rose of blood at the end.

He is well supported by Catherine Jayes' music, which mixes with a soundscape designed by Gregory Clarke; and more particularly some tremendously effective lighting. Judith Greenwood uses great imagination, generally favouring large areas of darkness but lighting individuals with spots so that when she eventually illuminates the whole stage it comes as a shock.

The creative team has a rollicking story line to work with centring on the inconstant Beatrice Joanna played with great feeling by Olivia Williams. She is a rich woman who could have her pick of husbands but sadly, having chosen Lawrence Spellman's Alonzo, within a week falls for the curly blond locks of Alsemero (Tom Hiddleston).

At this point, she might have accepted her fate but for the efforts of her servant De Flores, who provides a cross between Malvolio's devotion and Iago's evil, even at one point being described as "honest" like Othello's lieutenant. Will Keen is perfectly cast as a wicked man who derives great pleasure from working around societal norms to his own advantage.

He offers to help his mistress out by murdering Alonzo but, having done so, blackmails her into giving him her virginity. Since her new prospective husband Alsemero is something of an amateur apothecary, this presents a wedding night problem that is solved by the old substitute virgin trick, Beatrice Joanna's maid enjoys a fine and noisy time in the marital bed, much to her mistress's dismay.

The dual playwrights parallel this story with another set in a madhouse in which the old Doctor Alibius (Jim Hooper) is cuckolded by his young wife, played by Jodie McNee with a Liverpudlian accent, egged on by the doctor's assistant Lollio (Tobias Beer).

Although, at times, The Changeling plays like a comedy, the ending leaves no doubt that it is a tragedy written to explore what happens when a woman cannot be satisfied with her lot.

In this version, the two and three quarter hours slip by easily so that once again, Cheek by Jowl deserve to have a success on their hands.

Running until 10th June

John Cardale reviewed this production in Paris

Reviewer: Philip Fisher