Katie Mitchell’s new production of Thomas Heywood’s 1603 domestic tragedy is a radical reworking of the piece. The play is relocated to the late 1910s. The inter-war years are a favourite of Mitchell’s, with The Pains of Youth, The Seagull, and Waves being set or moved into that era. It’s the shocked aftermath of war; there’s a fundamental shift of power to the middle class; it’s the period of High Modernism. And this production finds parts of all of that in this play.
There are two parallel stories - an aristocratic woman forced into a loveless marriage to save the estate and a middle-class woman shamed when he extra-marital affair is discovered - and Mitchell has interwoven these even more intricately than did Heywood. There are parallels between the two stories both in narrative terms and, in this production, visually. In particular, Mitchell has created a series of movement sequences that punctuate the action, in which the two women, like ghosts wander through the bustle of their homes, apparently unnoticed by the staff (in the aristocratic case) or just moved about like a chattel (in the middle-class home). The two women only meet at the end of the play, but even then Mitchell keeps most of the width of the stage between them. The aristocratic Susan, watching Anne die at the end of the play having starved herself in misery (or protest - the Suffragettes come to mind strongly here), keeps her distance. Why? Perhaps because she clings to the class distance between them - or perhaps because the dying Susan represents a horrifying image of the consequences of sexual self-assertion that she dare not approach. (The play ends, sententiously, with John Frankford announcing his dead wife’s epitaph: ‘Here lies she whom her husband’s kindness kill’d’. In this production, Susan says it - a horrified realisation that prevents the line focusing on the man’s self-knowledge and forgiveness and keeps the semiotic energy of the play circulating between the women.)
Class is really hard at work here. The stage visually is divided in two, left and right. On stage right is the grand entrance hall of an aristocratic country house; on the left, is the hallway and sitting room of a suburban middle-class house. (The lefthand part of the stage reminded me very strongly of the set for Season’s Greetings...) The suburban home is all brightly painted and bustling; the country house is shabby, old-fashioned, faded, a large crack in the ceiling, damp peeling the paint, the brick rotting beneath the surface. The two homes are paralleled visually in a number of ways; chandelier vs. lampshade, arch and rose window vs. fanlight; double vs. single doors; rugs vs. carpets; metalwork vs wooden bannisters; stone vs wooden staircase. There appear to be far too many servants in Suburbia but far too few in the Country. This may also be the point to remark - as many have remarked - that the set is sensationally good; the stone staircase of the manor house sweeping emptily down the centre-right of the stage. At one haunting moment the curtains on each side billow out, but in different directions...
This distinction between the two plots in terms of class certainly changes the emphasis of the original, since the class conditions of 1919 are very different from those in 1603. But this is one of the first ordinary domestic dramas (alongside near-contemporaneous pieces like A Yorkshire Tragedy and Arden of Faversham) and it dwells on simple, almost cosy things like dinner, a game of cards, people having to go off to work. The Frankford plot certainly lends itself to a middle-class setting, while the emphasis on good name and estate that drives the Mountford plot suggests the peerage. What the transposition does, rather brilliantly, is allow the aristocratic shenanigans to become images of deep moral decadence. In the ‘original’, Sir Francis Acton falls immediately in love with Susan, tries various devious ways of trapping her into marriage, but then has a conversion to goodliness, pays off all their debts with no strings attached, and thus allows Susan to enter freely into marriage with him. Here, it becomes yet another piece of financial settlement and Susan is still passed between her brother and the predatory Knight like a bargaining point. We see around her the decaying home and it is all the more clear that her sacrifice is in vain.
The production is two hours long. This has provoked the usual bleating about Mitchell’s disregard for the audience (in fact, it seemed to be an engaged and attentive audience when I saw it). It is emotionally quite cool, but while some have found that unengaging, it seemed to me a production that places sexual trauma at its heart. There was a frozen horror waiting in the play and it can’t be denied that John Frankford’s decision to humiliate his wife in front of the entire household is cruelty above and beyond. Mitchell also includes a ‘wedding night’ scene in which we see, almost wordlessly, Anne, creeping painfully downstairs, having had sex for the first time, blood on her nightdress. Sex in this production is traumatic. But note too that the play is structured in a number of short scenes, cutting between the two locations. Also, while the play might have been more sensational, lingering on the infidelity, in fact it concentrates on the married couple. It’s the play which behaves coolly to its characters.
It’s a revelation of a production.