REVIEW: The Changeling, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ✭✭✭✭

Hattie Morahan in The Changeling at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse
Hattie Morahan in The Changeling. Photo: Marc Brenner

The Changeling
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
27 January 2015
4 Stars

Of all the plays which benefit from the pen of Thomas Middleton, The Changeling, which he wrote with William Rowley is the most well-known; certainly it is regularly performed, there having been four major productions of it over the last decade. According to the programme for the Dominic Dromgoole revival of the play, now playing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, when it was originally produced, around 1622,  it was known as a comedy. Dromgoole absolutely finds the laughs, every one possible, in this version.

The Changeling is an odd, but remarkable play. Academic wisdom suggests that Middleton and Rowley wrote separate plots and then, together, fused them together, ensuring a finale that dealt with both. Middleton is credited with the blood-thirsty story of lust, vicious murder and revenge that centres around the beautiful Beatrice-Joanna; Rowley is thought responsible for the somewhat lighter tale of the beautiful, but ill-treated, Isabella, whose husband and would-be suitors play out their subterfuge in the mad-house run by Isabella’s husband, Alibius.

So, at the core of both plots is the same idea: a woman badly treated. Beatrice-Joanna, by her father who insists she marry Alonzo when she has fallen madly in love with Alsemero; Isabella, by her husband who mistrusts her fidelity and locks her in the madhouse he oversees to ensure her faithfulness. Both women react very differently to their misfortunes, but the result of their actions, in both cases, is change in others. Change in attitude, perception, understanding – but clearly, change. All of this is made very clear in the final scene when various characters admit the changes they have undergone, but it is also a notion central to the course of the play.

The tone of the narrative changes constantly: gory scenes such as the slaughter of Alonzo are juxtaposed against lighter, more jocular moments as the lovesick Antonio does his best to convince the madhouse servant, Lollio, he is insane so that he may attempt to seduce Isabella.

Beatrice-Joanna, struck by pure love when she encounters Alsemero in a church is so changed by her feelings for him that she entrusts her life and liberty to a man she detests, Deflores, in order to secure the murder of Alonzo so she can be free to be with Alsemero. Deflores’ unswerving devotion to her, despite her expressed and avowed hatred of him, and the bond they have over Alonzo’s spilt blood changes Beatrice-Joanna fundamentally: she conspires with her maid to deceive Alsemero on their wedding night; she has given her virginity to Deflores as part-payment for Alonzo’s grisly fate and must conceal that from her new husband. What love and duty means to Beatrice-Joanna changes fundamentally as proceedings unfold.

It’s a rich stew of carefully drawn characters engaged in a bitter and savage dance of desperation. With the exception of Isabella, pretty much every character is willing to do what it takes, whatever the cost, to get that which they lust after, whether that be power, sex, revenge or control. Although very funny in parts, it is as dark as pitch and fuelled by desperation and deception.

Dromgoole’s production is detailed and clear, effortlessly moving from the sombre and macabre world of Beatrice-Joanna to the lighter, albeit equally odd, world of Isabella. The humour he finds, even in the Beatrice-Joanna scenes, is welcome, serving both to lighten the mood and underline the starkness of the misguided actions of many of the characters.

There is an unsettling opening sequence which sets the mood crisply. The majority of the cast appear on stage, with light illuminating their faces from below. In the pitch-black that the Sam Wanamaker can easily and intimately create, this effect is both unnerving and unholy. A kind of masque follows, with Beatrice-Joanna at its centre, the rest of the cast, their faces still eerily lit, weaving around her. Then the play begins, in the certain knowledge that dark deeds will unfold. It’s an inspired beginning.

Hattie Morahan is sheer delight as Beatrice-Joanna. Her grasp of the language is excellent and she uses the full range of her throaty, rich voice as she charts her character’s fall into horror and despair. She captures perfectly the love for Alsemero which ultimately drives her deeds and is deft at portraying the gradual shift in her feelings for Deflores: from avowed hatred through desperate partnership to joint suicide. She is quite riveting.

Morahan makes the most of the rare, lighter moments afforded her character and her scene with the potions and the following scene where she fakes symptoms of virginity are nicely played. In every way, it is a superb performance.

She has exemplary help from a uniformly excellent cast.

As the devious Deflores, Trystan Gravelle brings an off-handedness to the character which accentuates the underlying villainy. His scenes with Morahan are wholly convincing and he both kills others and dies well, awash in blood. Tom Stuart’s sweet, naïve Alonzo is exactly right in every respect: his gentle nature is carefully conveyed. As a result, his murder is very difficult to watch.

Joe Jameson is excellent as Tomazo, Alonzo’s brother, desperate to avenge his sibling’s slaughter. He is a small supernova of compressed energy and power. Simon Harrison’s Alsemero, who genuinely loves Beatrice-Joanna and is willing to murder Alonzo to get his prize, is precisely drawn: a decent person driven to distraction who then uncovers an horrific truth. Harrison charts the journey very well indeed.

Sarah MacRae is a luminous actress and her work here as Isabella adds further to the lustrous work she delivers. Her Isabella is fiery, determined, beautiful and canny – she wrings all the humour she can out of her situation and her deft work with Brian Ferguson’s very funny Antonio and Adam Lawrence’s daft Franciscus is hugely enjoyable.

As Lollio, the droll opportunist with control over the inmates in the mad house, Pearce Quigley is quite masterful. Endlessly funny, he delivers that perfect mixture of wily old rascal, sexual predator, idiot and blackmailer which ensures a character full of interest and colour. Quigley is quite superb.

There is a running joke with one of the inmates of the madhouse and Quigley which is laugh-out loud funny and gets funnier with each reiteration. Inspired clownery.

Claire van Kampen provides an evocative original score for the proceedings which proves to be unsettling throughout. It’s sometimes difficult to use the incidental music to accentuate the dramatic developments but here it works very well.

Jonathan Fensom’s design is simple and precise, as all designs in this space must be, but I especially liked the sense of religious iconography he used as the backdrop to the horrific deeds which play out, most of which centre around the sacrament of marriage.

This is an excellent production of a difficult and challenging play. So far, the Sam Wanamaker Theatre has been an unflagging success, with production after production of real power and stylish energy. The Changeling is the latest where the combination of space, direction and first-rate casting has reaped significant results.

The Changeling runs until 1st March 2015. For further information visit the Shakespeare’s Globe website.

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