“Thou art all deformed”
The programme for the Southwark Playhouse’s latest main house production, The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, starts off with an honest explanation of the difficulties in staging such a dialogue-heavy work so full of asides and freely admits it is taking a risk in the approach they have adopted, which is to use voiceovers. Such candour is perhaps bravely admirable but in this case, it is a risk that does not pay off as The Production Works’ reimagining of the classic sadly falls short in a number of areas.
Beatrice-Joanna is engaged to Alonzo, hotly in love with Alsemero and stalked by her disfigured servant De Flores and such is the strength of her burning desire and the desire she provokes in others that in order to pursue the second she engages the third to get rid of the first. This production focuses on this twisted love triangle and completely does away with the comic subplot, thus bringing in the show at an interval-less 90 minutes but making the tone of the play unremittingly dark.
The action has been updated to a modern day context, complete with an ever-present bank of CCTV surveillance monitors that De Flores uses to stalk his beloved, but the updating is ultimately rather superficial. It doesn’t add anything to the telling of the play and whilst set up as an intriguing premise in the opening scenes, remains rather underutilised throughout and turns into a glaring omission at the point at which a murder has been carried out and no-one thinks to see what was recorded on the tapes!
And turning the asides into voiceovers falls sadly flat. The recorded text loses any subtlety or finesse, especially in the echoing chamber but crucially, it completely disjoints the scenes in which it is utilised. The actors whose asides are being spoken almost all struggled with to compose a ‘thinking’ face that worked and the other actors struggled to remain effective within the scene, having to remain silent whilst the other ‘thinks’ and then cueing in their lines. It is a difficult ask to be sure but it never once felt natural and added layers of confusion to many scenes.
Performance-wise, the six-strong ensemble demonstrate a varying degree of confidence and ability to project their voices (or not look at their shoes throughout…). David Caves (who apparently just cannot keep a shirt on whilst acting, not that I’m complaining) brings a welcome degree of sinister intensity to his obsessive glove-sniffing portrayal which exudes a raw physicality. And one can see the attraction for Fiona Hampton’s spoilt princess Beatrice-Joanna who sees it as her right to go after whatever (or whoever) she wants, her performance occasionally persuasive but often unconvincing when reaching for depth.
George Bishop’s atmospheric lighting works well when Michael Oakley’s direction is at its most physical, occasionally powerful in its portrayal of the destructive power of obsessive love, but too often feeling paper thin, it never really convinces. When a finger is amputated, titters filled the theatre; when Beatrice-Joanna was unwillingly locked away into a closet, guffaws were heard – having put all their eggs in this one basket by editing the text so much, the production subsequently fails at carrying the audience into serious darkness. Whether it’s the relocation which leaves the play anchorless and ultimately does nothing to persuade of its necessity, the inconsistent casting which has led to an imbalanced level of performance, or the incorporation of inventive concepts which never quite sit right, the request “to give certain judgement what they see” means I have to say that I really did find little to commend it despite the enthusiasm on display.