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London Theatre Reviews

Sebastian Armesto, Paul Ready, Gawn Grainger and Liz White/ Ph: Stephen Cummiskey



One of the best and bravest decisions that Nicholas Hytner has made as head of the National Theatre is to give director Katie Mitchell free rein.

One of the best and bravest decisions that Nicholas Hytner has made as head of the National Theatre is to give director Katie Mitchell free rein. Traditionalists balked at her 20th century Greek tragedies; purists were outraged at her reinvention of Chekhov; and some critics wondered if her adaptation of Virginia Woolf, with its focus on sound and video, was actually theatre at all. Now Thomas Heywood’s 1607 tragedy gets the Mitchell treatment. 
Rare for a play of that period, A Woman Killed with Kindness is populated by well-to-do middle classes rather than royalty. Its concerns are with the affairs (in both senses of the word) of family rather than state, its focus on a pair of households. For Mitchell’s 1920s production, designers Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer have delivered the exquisitely detailed interiors of two mansions that bisect the Lyttelton's vast stage. 
In the house to the right, a marriage that begins in painful and bloody consummation for the bride ends in rage a year later when her husband discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Meanwhile, the master of the country pile to our left is imprisoned first for murder, then unpaid debts, leaving his reclusive sister vulnerable to the unwanted attentions of her brother’s enemy. But as usual with Mitchell what matters as much as a play’s story is the way she tells it. 
Over two uninterrupted hours Heywood’s domestic naturalism (revolutionary at the time he wrote it) is infected by a tight-lipped, white knuckled neurosis. Scenes are separated with interludes that collapse and even reverse the passage of time – a familiar Mitchell theme. During these moments, a woman seamlessly walks up a grand staircase backwards or, while standing ramrod straight, is repositioned like a mannequin by stagehands. 
This frantic human traffic is towed and pushed by composer Paul Clark’s modernist, jazzy and brilliant piano score. And although in previous Mitchell productions there has sometimes been the sense that these mesmerizing techniques have been imposed on the play, here they could just as easily have been inspired by it, such as when Paul Ready’s betrayed husband movingly pleads for clocks to reverse to the point before his wife (Liz White) and house-guest (Sebastian Armesto) began their affair. 
It is not all about what we see. Mitchell imposes a modern feminist sensibility on this 17th century play that recalls Ibsen and squeezes every last drop of irony out of the title. 
The so-called “kindness” eventually arrives in the form of forgiveness. But it is belatedly offered by a bitter husband to his banished, dying wife who, separated from her children, starves herself to death. And kindness comes also when a man settles his debts by marrying off his virtuous sister to his creditor. 
“I will yield to fate, and learn to love where I did hate,” says McDade's reluctant bride. But she says it with such venom you can almost hear a new follow-up line directed at her brother – “and learn to hate, where I did love” – though it is never spoken. 
Detractors complain that Mitchell’s priority is less about the writer’s intent and more about the director's vision, which here highlights the oppression of women. This could be true, but so what? The original text will always be there for more traditional productions. And for as long as the director's ambition is matched, as here, by coherence Hytner will be proved right.