Theatron Novum has transformed Thomas Heywood’s 17th century domestic drama A Woman Killed With Kindness into an intense, emotional character study. This works especially well in the Burton-Taylor Studio, where the audience almost sits amongst the actors in the intimate space, and props and set are kept to a minimum. The black box theatre facilitates total immersion, allowing stellar performances to take centre stage.
Director Eleanor Sax chooses to omit the sub-plot, and in doing so loses out on a thrilling story line involving a bet gone wrong, incarceration and a brother who pimps out his sister. This original narrative provides a valuable social exposition of the misogyny of Heywood’s society. By bypassing it, Sax’s production is less politically impactful and misses out some of the potential of the original script. However, what is lost in socio-political message is gained in emotional impact. By focusing on the hapless Frankford this production becomes an unflinching examination of lives falling apart.
The first half of the play captures Heywood’s rotten, bourgeois world of falsity and pretences. Marisa Crane’s set design effectively consolidates the themes, as it is revealed how Anne and Frankford’s love is as unsubstantial as the red satin wall hangings that are eventually stripped away. This rich colour evokes the “scarlet sins” that Frankford will go on to lament, and Anne’s matching gown marks her out as the nexus of this evil. As the play goes on, Anne swaps her elaborate dress for plain white nightwear and the props used to portray a middle class manor house are taken away. By removing the accruements of the period as the play becomes more emotionally affecting, director Eleanor Sax has found a perfect way to maintain a sense of the Elizabethan setting, whilst making sure that it does not become a distraction. The set design choices change our attitude in the second half of the play, ensuring that we focus less on the differences between this society and ours, and instead recognise and identify with timeless human pain.
Joe Stephenson plays Frankford as painfully earnest and innocent, utterly undeserving of his wife’s betrayal. Yet no one in this production is truly villainized—even Wendoll is sympathetically portrayed by Tobias Sims. His soliloquy, where he decides whether or not to pursue Anne, is one of the most powerful moments in the play; Sims captures a man wrought by lust, physically shaking with the force of his internal struggle, as he tries and fails to overcome his desire. His performance is nuanced enough to reveal how Anne is the victim; he becomes predatory, towering over her, so that when she finally acquiesces and kisses him, it seems she is submitting to external force rather than surrendering to her own lust. Victoria Gawlik’s performance is unexciting up until the point where her husband finds out about her betrayal. After this Gawlik comes into her own. She portrays Anne as if she is descending into mental illness, wringing her hands and pulling at her clothing to reveal how she literally cannot contain her pain. This effectively draws attention to the interpretation that sees Anne’s downfall as one of the first recorded cases of anorexia.
Special mention should also go to Christopher Page and Han Whitmore, who play the servants Nick and Jenkin with wit and aplomb, providing essential light relief. The dark subject matter calls for an outside perspective, which is skilfully provided by Page’s Nick. By having him perform the prologue, he is from the beginning associated with its wry, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the verisimilitude of the theatrical space. This perhaps contributes to the fact he comes across as the most level-headed character in the play, despairing at his naive master and poking fun at the obsequious Jenkin. Focalising events through his eyes is a masterstroke, and it ensures that the play remains grounded, despite taking its characters to the emotional brink.