Note: This review is based on a preview performance.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, as with its more established counterpart, works much better for comedy than tragedy, in my eyes at least. The one outstanding success of the theatre so far has been its side-splitting The Knight of the Burning Pestle, but even in its tragedies it has been the more amusing moments – Bergetto’s scenes in ‘Tis Pity, or the gentle tricking of Antonio by the Duchess in Malfi – that have brought the theatre to sparkling life, the intimacy of audience and company in a close space allowing for every gesture and wink to become gloriously funny. The downside of this, of course, is that serious moments have the potential to be unintentionally funny or, at the least, lost in the predisposition for laughter.
In theory, then, The Changeling had the potential to be the play that resolved this dynamic. Not only is the asylum subplot formally comic, but the main plot is suffused with comic potential: the one-liners of Deflores, the frostiness of Beatrice-Joanna to her enthusiastic stand-in in bed; the patently ludicrous ‘virginity test’. In Dominic Dromgoole’s production this potential for comedy was played up subtly throughout, most wonderfully in Trystan Gravelle’s deadpan performance as Deflores. Allowing his natural Welsh accent to give the lines a lilt, Gravelle’s Deflores was an affable, disarming servant, unobtrusive apart from his inflamed face. He developed a gentle rapport with the audience, easing the audience into collusion with his world-view, causing laughter with both his honest thrill at Beatrice-Joanna’s proximity and at his shrugging nonchalance as he lugged bodies offstage.
This was the subtlest of the tragedies so far: whereas ‘Tis Pity pulled out the stops for blood and spectacle, Gravelle’s performance anchored a production interested more in the complex negotiation of obsession and fantasy through a comic lens, looking for the line where it spills into horror. One sequence illustrated this perfectly. Alonzo (Tom Stuart) was invited to stand downstage staring at something in the distance while Deflores approached from behind with his dagger. The murder initially appeared to be a love embrace, Deflores easing his dagger almost gently into Alonzo’s side from behind. Then, as Alonzo fought back, Deflores was forced to hang on for dear life, stabbing repeatedly and holding his victim down as he thrashed, shouted out and finally faded. As Deflores stood up and dusted himself off, he continuing chatting to the audience as if having completed a difficult chore. While the spectacle of blood was excessive, the point was made – this Deflores was a charismatic, amoral worker. Later, as he strode off through an upstage door with a rifle ready to ‘clean the chimney’, his pragmatic efficiency continued to be as comic as it was brutal.
Hattie Morahan as Beatrice-Joanna aimed for something similar, but with less success. As another character privileged with a lot of audience address, Beatrice-Joanna shared her plans with something approaching Deflores’ efficiency, increasingly so after entering into compact with him. The difference here was the character’s relative lack of self-awareness which, in Morahan’s performance, led to a frustrating stagnation in development: the character simply didn’t seem to change from her initial petulance, and potentially fascinating scenes such as that in the closet of medicines were played with such an exaggerated comic air that they became somewhat dull. The only time Beatrice-Joanna seemed to particularly react was as she waited impatiently for Diaphanta to leave her husband’s bedroom, where Morahan’s anxiety manifested in a faster pace and a desperation for Deflores’ help that finally established a dynamic connection between the two. Thalissa Teixeira’s outstanding performance as the maid allowed Morahan to find the more interesting bitter, cruel side of her character. Disappointingly, however, the emphasis on comedy elsewhere with Beatrice-Joanna made it more difficult to achieve the complexity of her fatal bargain with Deflores.
Perhaps inevitably, the other performances in this plot were straight down the line, deliberately allowing the excesses of Deflores and Beatrice-Joanna an undemonstrative backdrop against which to be highlighted. Simon Harrison was a strong, confident Alsemero who achieved the most interesting performance in his initial expressions of love and then of suspicion, finally coming into his own with a righteous but brutally aggressive tirade against Beatrice-Joanna, resulting in her being thrown in terror through the tiring house walls. There was strong support also from the always-reliable Peter Hamilton Dyer as the lecherous but loyal Jasperino and Joe Jameson as a hot-headed Tomazo, whose energetic presence on the stage always accelerated scenes. However, Liam Brennan was a weirdly demonstrative Vermandero, unconvincing in his booming command of the stage, and the group scenes were confused by odd physical sequences: an exaggerated dumb-show for Alsemero and Beatrice-Joanna’s engagement that jarred with everything that had come before, and an opening sequence with shuttered lanterns illuminating actors’ eyes that, in the most basic way, alluded to a theme of surveillance without development.
Yet the performances were supported by some fine set pieces. The string quartet who accompanied the play throughout were simply marvellous and regularly joined the action onstage, helping manage the choreography of the tos and fros. The fire lit by Deflores in Diaphanta’s chamber was achieved subtly with offstage smoke and fire effects, and the use of near-total blackout for night scenes worked much better here than for last year’s Malfi. The ghosts were a cruder intrusion, Diaphanta and Alonzo often getting lost in the mass of bodies onstage. The image of Beatrice-Joanna resignedly lifting her skirts so Deflores could thrust from behind was crass enough, but to also have Deflores carrying Alonso’s Ghost on his back at the same time rendered the image ludicrous in effect even if the symbolic point couldn’t be clearer. Frustratingly, while the Ghosts may have kept the audience’s memory of the murders fresh, they didn’t seem to make sense for the characterisation of this Deflores: his relative detachment was key to his character, and the haunting seemed out of keeping with his manner elsewhere.
The subplot was dominated by the always-wonderful Pearce Quigley as Lollio. While the asylum may have technically belonged to Phil Whitchurch’s huffing and panting Alibius, it was Lollio who banged on the barred doors, bantered with the inmates (including a lumbering fool who, in a recurring joke, kept trying to emerge to dance with Isabella) and generally managed the space. While Quigley’s deadpan works perfectly on the Globe stage, his slightly more restrained performance on the Wanamaker stage achieved a more sinister effect: as he aimed to get under Isabella’s skirts, the parallel between his hold over his mistress and Deflores’ hold over his was momentarily clear, and I’d have loved to see Dromgoole explore this further. The subplot was, however, rather too static to sustain interest. Sarah Macrae gave a finely spoken but physically rigid performance for most of her scenes as Isabella, her uprightness contrasting with the crawling mannerisms of the fools and madmen but leaving the scenes lacking energy. She excelled in disguise, flooring the unsuspecting Antonio (Brian Ferguson) and bouncing astride him while herself adopting an Exorcist-style spider posture, but her passion seemed to lack space to develop. As the subplot was wrapped up in a flurry of dancing and the briefest of dumbshows, it seemed that the relatively full presentation of the subplot still hadn’t been given space to develop a full standing alongside the other.
However, even if it lacked larger purpose, the scenes remained funny, particularly in the physical comedy between Lollio and Antonio. Quigley’s laconic drawl and Ferguson’s good-natured loping made for an excellent combination, and the quick back-and-forth of instructions and ripostes created a gently amusing asylum environment, intruded on by a cast of inmates reaching through the bars. The fortress of Vermandero became very quickly the cages of the asylum, and the physical structure of the Sam Wanamaker seemed to offer potential here for an interesting exploration of the enclosure of space, alluded to in the opening surveillance sequence. Again, this didn’t seem to be acted upon, and the play instead drove towards a rather dull close with Beatrice-Joanna and Deflores staggering, bloodied and spectacular, from the closet to their drawn-out deaths onstage (Deflores cutting his own throat, though still managing to speak for some time after).
The Sam Wanamaker has established itself for comedy, and The Changeling‘s comic potential enabled it here to stand proudly alongside the more triumphant productions. There still seems to be work to be done in the space to stop falling into easy grotesquery and commit to the more complex explorations of psychology and audience complicity, but the groundwork here showed once more that the space has the potential to work and that Dromgoole has the measure of the space. One hopes that, even as he prepares to step down as Artistic Director, he continues pushing the possibility of the space for a serious tragic production.