As St Hilda’s College Drama Society showed on the opening night of Women Beware Women, the conceit of theatricality can redeem most things. With stage hands present onstage during the preset, maliciously manipulating the action through to the end of the play, this production is one which centres around a theatrical court – a court in which even the most earnest behaviour is false and the most genuine smile seems like a mask. This is not merely a political statement about court culture in Middleton’s play, but a clever device by which the necessary problems of a college production in a music hall are disguised and redeployed to the benefit of the production. Throughout, there is a sense that all action at court is choreographed and acted and that, even in their dying moments, these court creations are scripted and masked by forces out of their control.
This pervasive theatricality is split at the seams by Jonnie Griffiths’ and Ramsay Gray-Stephens’ comic pairing, with Gray-Stephens’ clown-like Sordido undercutting Griffiths’ Shakespearean Jaques figure to produce both genuine comedy and an external view on courtly life. Griffiths’ and Gray-Stephens’ are far from the only masterful performances in the production. Particular sensitivity is shown by Alice Gray’s Isabella, especially in the scenes with her beloved uncle played by Nick Bowman. Kaiya Stone’s Mother is an equally commendable performance, balancing the opening scene of domesticity (in which you could almost believe that a very modern Rory O’Keefe’s Leantio had just returned from a gap year!) with the growing tension of the chess match and her turbulent relationship with Katherine Stocker’s Bianca.
A myriad of sins hide behind this mask of theatricality, however, and it would be wrong to suggest that this was the most professional student production I have ever seen. The lighting was often unsubtle, oscillating between red and blue, and the music occasionally unsuited to the scene. The concluding masque, too, seemed somewhat rushed and I fear may have lost audience members unfamiliar with court masque tradition. Not a production for those interested in a reading of Women Beware Women which takes into account the context of the script and introduces them to the world of Early Modern drama, then, but an interesting exploration of the courtly world and exposition of its hidden perils, coupled with various thoroughly modern and thoughtful visuals. In short, well worth the visit.
**** (3 Stars)
PHOTOS/ St. Hilda’s College Drama Society