I’ve had a few Jacobean treats this year already – Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, cloistral and masque-like, at the Old Vic; a febrile Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Barbican; an almost perfect King Lear at the Almeida, and now The Changeling at the Young Vic.
It’s a harrowing play, its tale of lustful murders and lunacy spilling its guts everywhere. A collaboration between Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, it sees Beatrice-Joanna fall for the seemingly upright Alsemero. The only problem is, she’s betrothed to another; naturally, the only sensible thing to do is to get the man she hates with all her blood, the disfigured and corrupt De Flores, to kill him. As counterpart to this is a subplot involving a young gentleman who inveigles his way into a lunatic asylum – as a patient – so that he can sate his lusts on the beautiful wife of the doctor.
The stage set was like a school gymnasium, with a blue mattress and a net that served as a sort of membrane between our world and the world of the stage, as well as a means of seeing ghosts and spying on others. The setting was a modern European one – perhaps a dictator’s house – all neat uniforms and tottering high heels. The lunatic asylum was like something from a futuristic nightmare: cages, unshapely figures, screaming.
We first encountered Beatrice (played with brash passion by Sinead Matthews) on her knees, praying, and Alsemero (a brisk Harry Hadden-Paton), believing her to be a shining light of virtue - or at least convincing himself that his sexual feelings were noble - falling for her and offering his hand on the spot.
But, just as the castle hides dark places where murders happen, all of the characters hide darker parts of themselves. And Beatrice is not capable of knowing the meaning of words like honour and virtue, though she bandies them about with vim. She hides a serpent in her bosom – and links her fate, as tightly as the bounds that chained Prometheus to a rock, to De Flores. Everything will fall apart: nothing virtuous can live, nothing pure, nothing bright; Daiphanta the maiden, perhaps the only pure thing in the text, will suffer as surely as the corrupted murderers; the paranoid doctor's wife, who remains chaste (in the sense that she doesn't succumb to temptation) is still married to the doctor at the end.
The play had an insane, rushing momentum. Characters shifted in and out of the subplot – De Flores rising from a cupboard in the mad scene; Piracquo doubling as the doctor, Alibius; the counterfeit madman Antonius ("Tony") as Piracquo’s brother. At first I thought these were a heavy-handed way of drawing comparisons between the court and the madhouse; but as the play progressed I saw the sense (hah) of it. In this production, everything is mad and leads towards madness. There is no room for folly here.The final scene showed this perfectly, with Alsemero all but gibbering his lines and hopping about like a madman - the relatively trite lines about "change" sucked into the whirl of the ending, and showing that, in fact, there was no change; the Duke weeping on the floor; and Beatrice and her lover, De Flores, those “twins of mischief”, dead and defiled.
The cast were superb, treading the line between tragedy and comedy with a surefootedness; although, occasionally gabbling their lines at the end, it seemed fitting, as if nothing could stop this terrible breaking apart. The scenes in the mental asylum were brutally uncomfortable; the dance of the madmen was cleverly superimposed on the wedding of Beatrice and Alsemero, shading into a hilarious dumb show.
This is a steam-train of a production, full of weird lights and clever touches; aware of the magnificent horror of this play as well as its ridiculousnesses and excesses. And there is a sex scene in which food is put to usages I’ve never seen before.