Thomas Middleton’s play begins where many would end, with a young man bringing his new wife home. Women Beware Women then proceeds to plunge into a world of moral murkiness and game-playing, a savage attack on Jacobean high society that climaxes in a bloodbath.
More dirty bird than upstart crow, Middleton was not a writer of restraint. He delighted in the dark. Director Amy Hodge has run with that, rooting this play of excess in the 1980s. It’s a relocation that makes perfect sense. This a transactional world in which women are commodities, objects to be sold off and traded in order to secure wealth and influence. At one point, two men look up a woman’s skirt to size up the goods.
Designer Joanna Scotcher has coated the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in black marble and gilt, installed a gold elevator and gone to town on the costumes. Gloria Ontiri’s Guardiano sports a shoestring tie, leather driving gloves and a slippery perm. Tara Fitzgerald’s smoke throated, twice-widowed arch-manipulator Livia wears a Chanel suit and, later, a pair of skin-tight gold trousers.
Middleton loved a chess metaphor and everyone here is playing games with one another, either exploiting or being exploited, sometimes both. Olivia Vinall’s initially innocent but increasingly cunning Isabella is being married off to Guardiano’s wealthy Ward, an entitled public-school brat in a blazer. Livia’s twisting everyone to her will. She’s more than willing to sacrifice others, and smile while doing so, but at least this way she herself does not have to submit to a man. Hodge’s production captures that paradox.
While Hodge revels in the convoluted and over-the-top plot, and has a lot of fun with it, the production does not shy away from the human cost of these machinations. The scene in which Simon Kunz’s Duke paws at Bianca before, it’s implied, raping her, is deeply, skin-crawlingly unpleasant. The play highlights the lack of choice these women have and the corners that forces them into.
Onitiri and Vinall give performances in keeping with the heightened pitch of the material, Helen Cripps, as the tantrum-prone Ward, the kind of young man who believes themselves untouchable, has a suitably preppy Teflon veneer, while Fitzgerald is clearly having a blast as Livia. While there’s a definite dash of Dynasty to her performance, there’s a distinctly Joan Crawford quality to her too, a glamorous pragmatism.
Composer Jim Fortune’s music is seductively atmospheric, and the flickering candle flames add to the sense of opulence – and also unease.
While the production is not short of over-the-top pleasures, in this condensed version some of the subplots feels truncated and rushed, and as it escalates towards the climactic slaughter, a wedding masque in which everyone wears Grecian costume, it seems to run out of steam. The final tableau of death and bloodshed feels underpowered and underwhelming in comparison with what has gone before.