I’m grateful that the Stratford Festival focuses on rarely produced English dramas & comedies that give Shakespeare’s work more of a context. One of these productions in this year’s The Changeling by Thomas Middleton & William Rowley. I enjoyed the show and would recommend it for the performances of the leads alone. Ben Carlson as De Flores is outstanding. Mikaela Davies as Beatrice-Joanna is intense and at times even a little frightening as she slips from manipulated to manipulator. Tim Campbell as Lollio brought much appreciated comic relief & a gifted command of double-entendre.
Written in early 1600’s this piece is one of the ones that established the use of physical deformity as a reflection of inner evil. In this production nevus flammeus on half of De Flores face. This demonization of physical disability is still evident in our culture’s reaction to otherness – though it has become more of an infantilization – treating the disabled as if they where children incapable thought or, as in fiction, letting their difference make them into spiteful, evil villains or saints.
I was also struck by the fear of women’s sexuality. Beatrice-Joanna begins by protecting her purity – her virginity – but once it surrendered the pleasure she takes in sex becomes a reflection of her evil. Clearly things haven’t changed much since 1600. Slut shamming & head-shaking over a woman enjoying or reclaiming her right to enjoy sex still goes on & on & on. Of course Beatrice-Joanna suffers appropriately both for her crime and for her sexual pleasure.
The staging was simple & effective with a set that morphed with lighting from church, to asylum, to street, to castle hall. It didn’t detract from the action. Costumes reflected the production being set in 1938 Spain – a time when Spain was going though political change & turmoil – like eh factor sin the playing going though emotional change & turmoil. I did find the opening scene’s rebel exchanging secret notes very distracting – it pulled focus from the dialogue with business that added nothing to the text.
I have to mention the smart, subtle, references to David Bowie, and Bob Dylan in the program notes. Two modern performers whose careers underwent constant & sometimes unpredictable changes – much like what the characters in The Changeling go through.
The notes mention another Middleton (with Thomas Dekker) play – The Roaring Girl, about the crossing-dressing Moll Firth, deserves a proper revival soon. I’d highly recommend The Changeling – an excellent production with more present day resonance than one might expect.