Women Beware Women at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
“Ooh life!” exclaims Isabella (Olivia Vinall) as she leans against the stage, lamenting her misfortunes. She’s understandably upset, given that she’s married to an idiot whose friend upskirted her and she’s just found out the man she’s been having an affair with is her uncle. Isabella isn’t the only one having a bad day in Women Beware Women, a Jacobean tragicomedy by Thomas Middleton in which women are apparently to blame for all the horrible things men do to them.
This version of Women Beware Women uses a cut and slightly edited version of the original script and adds some hearty folk songs about the misogynistic standards placed upon a woman’s appearance. It is also set in the 1980s, although you’d only know it by the costumes. The decision to set it in the very recent past may seem a bit random, but it starts to make sense when you see the sleazy, privileged Duke (Simon Kuntz) creeping on a young woman and using his wealth and status to trap her and buy her silence.
A live orchestra plays a mixture of sad “Ahhh-ah-ahh” vocals and a slightly jovial yet sinister jingle whenever something nefarious is being planned. The Sam Wanamaker stage is beautiful and sparse, with the actors literally climbing over the audience at times and making full use of levels.
Women Beware Women shows how the men in the play – even those like Leantio, who are apparently in love – seek to capture, control and use women’s bodies without their consent. Several female actors play male parts, which especially highlights the idea of women betraying women when Guardiano (played by Gloria Ontiri) tricks Bianca (Thalissa Teixeria) into accompanying her on a “tour of the house” so the Duke can assault her. The play’s title is interesting, because it is clear that although Livia helps these men see their plans come to fruition, it is they who actually do the terrible things in the story. She may betray other women, but she only paves the way for men to hurt them.
Tara Fitzgerald gives a great performance as the low-voiced, cynical Livia, who tricks younger women into succumbing to men. Clearly lonely, she is oddly sympathetic when she laments her cunning in all aspects but her own heart. Olivia Vinall is great as a sarcastic Isabella whose cutting tone highlights her displeasure with her marriage. Helen Cripps is also great as the hapless, juvenile ward who’d rather be off playing shuttlecock with his servant Sordido (Rachel Spence), for whom he seems to have a much stronger liking than for Isabella. It’s a strong cast all around, although there is a little more random thrusting than seems necessary.
Women Beware Women brings this sexist Jacobean tale to a 21st-century audience in a way that’s mostly clear and easy to follow. The play’s ending is meant to be over the top and a bit ridiculous, but it is confusing and sometimes hard to tell what’s going on. Aside from that, this is a well executed, conceptual and strangely hilarious performance which is well worth a watch.
Photos: Johan Persson
Women Beware Women is at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 2nd March until 18th April 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.