It is a little dispiriting to find the first of this summer’s Swan plays is another Caroline revenge tragedy in which women are dragged around by their hair and thrown to the ground. This directorial shorthand for women-being-treated-badly is becoming worryingly de rigueur, and its shock-value diminishes with constant repetition and normalisation, especially at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. But this aside, Matthew Dunster’s revival of Ford’s lesser-known, rarely staged Love’s Sacrifice was a cut above the ‘Jacobean’ standard (using Susan Bennett’s term), offering a classy and nuanced take on a difficult play as a rich ensemble piece.
This play was chosen for the season as a result of a series of workshops and discussions between academics and practitioners at the Shakespeare Institute, and its fascinating variation on Ford’s usual themes shows why. The play’s central plot features a love triangle without the sex, as the Duke of Pavy’s wife Bianca (Catrin Stewart) and best friend Fernando (Jamie Thomas King) fall in love but stand rather pedantically by their chastity; there is something cynical about the ‘Yeah, but we didn’t actually do anything’ argument, which blurs any easy moral judgements. The three leads handled this complexity to disorienting effect. Bianca’s brutal dismissal of Fernando upon his open declarations of love, accusing him of self-indulgence and impropriety, was forceful and damning, Stewart squaring up to her would-be lover and destroying his hopes. That the next scene saw her sneak into his bedroom to declare her own love in turn was, in this light, somewhat disappointing; yet the guilt and passion of the two built up an intensity to their declarations that bordered on the sexual even as they clung to their version of chastity. The skill of the production was in maintaining the erotic charge between the lovers without the recourse to representations of sex that too often, and too easily, characterises Jacobean and Caroline drama.
King had, perhaps, the most difficult role as the lover driven to ultimate distraction by his self-denial and insistence on his version of honour. The final moments, in which he exploded from Bianca’s coffin, best illustrated the arc of his character from upright and wry to emotional and beyond reason. He was balanced by Matthew Needham as a wonderfully unpredictable Duke, who veered between genial laughter and roars of outrage as his courtiers tried – and regularly failed – to maintain the careful equilibrium that would keep him calm. Once inducted into the secret of the lovers by the circumspect D’Avalos (Jonathan McGuinness), Needham watched and waited. The murder of Bianca began with a posse interrupting the lovers but boiled down to a breathtaking debate between husband and wife, she torturing him with her praise of Fernando’s qualities and he raging impotently until the point of strangulation and then stabbing. The subsequent encounter, with the Duke screaming at Fernando to take up his sword and fight him as a man, descended into chaos as he finally came to believe Fernando’s protestations of Bianca’s chastity; the two men’s close relationship found its apotheosis in this emotional skirmish, aligning them as victims.
As is perhaps clear, the play draws heavily on Othello, with D’Avalos in the Iago role. In one beautiful moment, D’Avalos kept up an intermittent muttering of ‘I like not that’ and, when roared at by the Duke for his meaning, claimed it was from a play he was reading – presumably Shakespeare’s. The antagonism was one of the production’s least well-drawn aspects, however; McGuinness gave a good account of D’Avalos, particularly as he brooded in the shadows, but his general affability and openness detracted somewhat from the evil. Bizarrely, perhaps, Beth Cordingly’s Fiormonda – the Duke’s sister, herself in love with Fernando, and the instigator of the plot – made very little impression on me either. Cordingly’s performance was subtle and dignified, perhaps overshadowed by the larger roles with their greater emotional range. Nonetheless, her scorn and unhappiness cast a shadow over even the pleasanter scenes, and her final rejection by the new Duke for her actions was a suitably downbeat conclusion.
Anna Fleischle’s stunning set saw a series of pointed arches, growing taller downstage, creating the skeletal structure of a cathedral around the production. Fiormonda and D’Avalos used the arches to linger in the shadows outside of the main playing space of the Swan thrust, and the clear line allowed for the RSC’s trademark displays of Catholic spectacle, with crucifix, Latin chanting and Geoffrey Freshwater’s Abbott processing down the length of the stage, while the Duke gazed wrathfully at his wife. An overhead gantry allowed for an extra level of espionage, with nameless characters regularly passing over the stage and giving the impression of a constantly public environment with few locks or barriers. This gantry served to accentuate certain power structures, but also to allow humorous moments, most notably as the court assembled to watch and laugh at Matthew Kelly’s Mauruccio.
Mauruccio, a sympathetic fop not dissimilar in certain ways to Bergetto in Ford’s ‘Tis Pity (even down to the adoring, semi-aware servant), offered much of the play’s comedy. Kelly milked every affectation, prancing before a mirror and presenting himself as if a suitor to Fiormonda. Yet while Kelly’s costume affectations and mannerisms were deliberately excruciating, he drew a great deal of sympathy for his clearly advanced age (struggling to bow fully) and his utter helplessness, particularly when discovered. The combination of hubris and vulnerability led to him being crestfallen, and his return from prison after his implication in a murder plot saw him dishevelled, embarrassed and visibly smaller. It’s important not to view non-Shakespearean plays through a Shakespearean lens, but the staging of this plotline inevitably evoked Malvolio – except, beautifully, reimagined in an uplifting way as he not only accepted Morona as a bride but enthusiastically and movingly embraced a new, quieter life, freed to be himself away from the court in the company of a loyal servant and a kindly partner.
This story contrasted with the major subplot, that of the deplorable Ferentes (an excellent Andy Apollo). Apollo’s take on a character who impregnates three separate women while declaring undying constancy to each was contemporary, he seeming to emerge straight from The Riot Club as a privileged, preening, arrogant villain. Even when confronted by the three women (Rhiannon Handy, Sheila Atim and Annette McLaughlin) he was barely perturbed, throwing open his arms and shrugging off their woes. Individually, he pinned down the women, trapped them and demonstrated his ‘ownership’ of them by grabbing their crotch. The casual disdain with which he treated all three women led to the more straightforward revenge plot, culminating in a masque where he wore a mask (evoking a gimp) which they used to chain him up before stabbing him. The spectacle of the masque drew on the recurring chess motif (not only was the game played, but it was the crest of Pavy’s family, and used as a lighting design at various points) by dressing the women in red and their male partners in white, each with pieces on their heads. While the metaphor may be heavy-handed, the sense of these players negotiating and outflanking one another pervaded much of the production.
Love’s Sacrifice was torn between its unusual assertion of independent female agency, which afforded some of the fullest and least predictable roles for women I’ve seen in early modern performance in some time, with the replication of violence against women. The scene in which two fathers of Ferentes’ victims exhorted their daughters to take revenge while themselves enacting violence against them by grabbing by the hair and forcing them to murder showed up just one aspect of this society’s hypocrisy; the fathers watching gleefully as their daughters killed Ferentes but were then themselves taken to prison was particularly revealing. Yet the women in this play did manage to do quite a lot, with Fiomonda and Bianca in particular making decisions about their own sexual availability that determined the parameters within which the more active men could operate. As such, this felt like a refreshingly modern riff on the familiar elements of the revenge tragedy, with a complex ensemble capturing a range of moves and countermoves leading to a hopeless conclusion.
On a personal note, it was great to see my old friend Robyn Winfield-Smith making her RSC debut as this production’s Assistant Director, the second Warwick alumnus of my generation to be contributing to the Swan’s revival of neglected plays!