Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London
This summer’s production of A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National is director Katie Mitchell’s second staging of Thomas Heywood’s 1603 drama. In this second attempt, she brings the play forward to 1919, when women had just been awarded the vote. Social commentary, evident throughout the play, focuses on the impact of gender roles, and the invisibility of women as a consequence of strong males.
It is the story of one death and two marriages. Two women lead intertwined lives, but never meet until the closing scene. A beautiful set design from Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer splits the stage into two houses. One, a crumbling mansion, and beside it a blossoming manor house. Susan Mountford, played evocatively by Sandy McDade, lives on one side with her cad of a brother, Sir Charles (Leo Bill), who spends the entirety of the play disrupting her attempts to maintain their home and social position; on the other side of the stage, Anne (Liz White) marries John Frankford. Paul Ready’s performance as John was one of the highlights of the show: confident, charming, and in full submersion in the ignorance of bliss, he also had the clarity and audibility which were sometimes lacking from the other principles.
This is a highly-stylised interpretation, and the work by movement director Joseph Alford is breathtaking. Much time passes in the course of the play, and this is clearly signified by highly choreographed movement to alter the households: servants would enter and, to a tinkering on the piano, transform the homes with much coming and going. The heightened choreography was enchanting, and the manhandling of the women during this was both beautiful and integral, as both White and McDade were lifted and reorganised on stage.
White and McDade, in particular, had such discipline in their bodies that they were partially acting, partially performing a ballet. They were present and commanding in their space, yet so precise in their movements that they seemed almost mechanical, controlled by something, or indeed someone, else. The time the women shared on stage was haunting. The movement in slow motion, reverse, and the arms of others, presented the women as ghosts. Even within their own homes, they were visible as women only when the gentlemen deemed it appropriate. While life passed the rest of the time they were mere silent presences, whereas the men were present on stage, vocally and physically, or absent while time passed.
The servants, particularly in the Frankford household, provided a comic touch throughout the play. Their presence was much in the vein of Shakespeare’s mechanicals, and the audience responded warmly to them. The relationships between the servants showed some of the strongest development, with an evident hierarchy, and plenty of implied history as they bustled about, commenting on the actions of their employers.
It was certainly an enjoyable production, but critical reflection tends to the opinion that the care and attention which had been taken to develop the interpretation, theme, physicality, and design, was lacking in that of the acting. The actors handled the text with grace, but the relationships lacked credibility. The naturalistic scenes felt underworked in comparison to the perfectly rehearsed stylised choreography. Had the characters resided truly in the world created so beautifully for them by the servants and ensemble, this could have been a captivating production.
Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey, courtesy of the National Theatre.