Powerful Jacobean drama lights up stage

The Changeling: Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday, Oct 20A couple of decades on from Hamlet and revenge tragedy was as ripe a stage experience as Jacobeans could hope to see.

The Changeling: Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Arts Theatre, Cambridge until Saturday, Oct 20

A couple of decades on from Hamlet and revenge tragedy was as ripe a stage experience as Jacobeans could hope to see. The Changeling, in which Thomas Middleton collaborated with the actor William Rowley, was one of the best.

It's a dark tale, none darker, packed with of lust, passion, murder, and brutality, with an almost separate but parallel plot set in a lunatic asylum. There's loads of blood, sadism, a finger that, unceremoniously and sickenly gets chopped off, helpings of obsession, madness and even comedy.

Stephen Unwin's 's English Touring Theatre production grips the attention from first to last. What's intriguing about the play - and Unwin charts this splendidly throughout - is its grasp of what drives the flawed society. That, the authors seem to believe, is unadulterated corruption.


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The aristocratic beauty, Beatrice-Joanna (Anna Koval), is to marry in an arranged political alliance. Suddenly though, she falls in love with a young man she happens to meet. She becomes so obsessed with him she arranges for her prospective husband to be murdered.

Even worse, her chosen instrument of murder is her father's physically and morally repulsive servant, Deflores (Adrian Schiller).

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Deflores's heavy price for the deed is her body. Having stepped, irretrievably, from innocence to evil, Beatrice-Joanna is so lost she even forms a passion for the murderer. That's before they both get their just reward.

In the other story, the opposite side of the same coin, we see jealousy and distrust of the truly innocent by a stupid old doctor (Terrence Hardiman) who runs the lunatic asylum. His offence causes similar but comic moral chaos.

Both stories - we switch from one to the other - are told on Paul Wills's cold, grey castle and asylum set. All sorts of moral and political rottenness, both individually and in the state, allow this to happen. Weak leadership opens the door to endemic self-seeking immorality at all levels. It sounds familiar.

Deflores is a masterpiece of characterization - there's a bit of Iago there, Macbeth, Caliban and others. Adrian Schiller plays him quietly, coldly, cruelly, but convincingly. Anna Koval as Beatrice-Joanna could have made more, I feel, of the developing filth of her relationship with Deflores, which epitomizes the moral decay at the core of the play.

Overall, it's an engrossing production, with as bloody a final scene as I can remember . A valuable opportunity to see an infrequently performed play.

Ivan Howlett

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