Madness And Mayhem In Jacobean Melodrama

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 47 months ago
Madness And Mayhem In Jacobean Melodrama ★★★☆☆ 3

Photo: Hattie Morahan and Trystan Gravelle in The Changeling at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Credit: Marc Brenner.

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Jacobean-style Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the ideal setting for The Changeling, Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 1622 tragedy of murder, madness and moral murkiness. With its intimate, candlelit ambience, this beautifully decorated timber theatre plays seductive host to an erotic thriller that exposes the dark and dangerous side of passion.

The main plot (largely written by Middleton), set in the castle of Alicante, concerns the downward spiral of Beatrice-Joanna, whose governor father has arranged for her to marry the rich but dull-witted Alonzo, but who has fallen in love with the dashing Alsemero. The creepily attentive servant Deflores agrees to ‘get rid of’ her undesired fiancée but in payment demands her virginity, which leads to yet further slippery steps in her descent to depravity. The comic subplot (written by Rowley) shows Isabella, the young wife of an elderly and jealous lunatic asylum keeper, being courted by two young gentlemen disguised as madmen.

The Changeling is a strange hybrid of illicit love, macabre violence, black humour and farcical intrigue, featuring a severed finger with a diamond ring, bloodied ghosts of victims and plenty of madcap antics. To some extent, the lighter shenanigans in the asylum mirror the more sombre machinations up at the castle, as the play prompts us to question who is rational and who is crazy. What also comes across strongly is how a repressive, patriarchal society that treats women as merchandise forces them into situations they wouldn’t have chosen from their own free will.

Director Dominic Dromgoole keeps a lid on the melodrama while embracing the dark comedy in an atmospheric, period-dress production that doesn’t quite make all the disparate elements gel. The grotesque dance of the madmen is a highlight, while the flickering candles cast ominous shadows throughout. Jonathan Fensom’s barred-gate design suggests various forms of imprisonment, with Claire van Kampen’s edgy score for string quartet adding much to the menace.

Hattie Morahan conveys the changeable Beatrice-Joanna’s sensual waywardness without capturing the full force of her being trapped, as her revulsion turns into attraction for fellow thrill-seeker, the pock-marked stalker Deflores, played with deadly wit by Trystan Gravelle. Simon Harrison is the enrapt but suspicious Alsemero and Tom Stuart the gauche and hapless Alonzo. Sarah MacRae makes a spirited but faithful Isabella, while Pearce Quigley gives a scene-stealingly droll performance as her ‘guard’ Lollio who tries to keep order amid all the mayhem.

By Neil Dowden

The Changeling is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Bankside, until 1 March. Tickets are £10–£60. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 22 January 2015