A Woman Killed with Kindness by Thomas Heywood. Directed by Katie Mitchell for the National Theatre Company at Lyttelton Theatre, The National Theatre, London, 11 September 2011
Reviewed by Peter Malin
References to the play are to “A Woman Killed with Kindness” and Other Domestic Plays, ed. by Martin Wiggins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
In 1991, Katie Mitchell directed a fine production of Heywood’s underrated domestic tragedy for the RSC at The Other Place. Rooted in her evocation of a close-knit, rural community located somewhere between 19th-century Yorkshire and an eastern European outpost steeped in Catholic ritual, her telling of the story in Vicki Mortimer’s gloomy, peat-floored setting gave an intensity and moral seriousness to the play that nullified most of the conventional critical reservations about Heywood’s dramatic skill. For once, the subplot – derided by T.S.Eliot as “the weakest […] of any important play in the whole Elizabethan repertory”  – came across as a crucial component of the play’s moral structure, while the dialogue, often condemned as clumsy and awkward, emerged as the entirely believable discourse of unsophisticated, inarticulate people torn between the demands of their humane decency, their passionate instincts, and their subservience to moral and social demands. Mitchell’s evident respect for the play, together with the skill and commitment of her actors, demonstrated convincingly that ordinary people’s misfortunes can carry the weight of tragedy just as much as those of the great.
Twenty years later, Mitchell has developed into a radically different kind of theatre practitioner, and in revisiting the play for this National Theatre production she produced merely a bloodless and dispiriting travesty of Heywood’s work. This time around, she chose to locate the action at a precise historical moment, identified in the programme as the spring of 1919. Presumably, we were meant to think of a post-war society awkwardly coping with the return of its traumatised menfolk while the women struggled to readjust to the patriarchal control from which the war had to some extent released them. This is just a guess, however, since nothing in the production drew explicit attention to it, though it would be difficult otherwise to explain Leo Bill’s portrayal of Sir Charles Mountford as a limping, drunken, presumably shell-shocked hysteric whose lines throughout were shouted incomprehensibly.
For Mitchell – and, to some extent, for Heywood – the play is a study of the parallel lives of two women who fall victim to the misogynistic and self-righteous morality of the men in their lives, whose “kindness” proves paradoxically destructive. In Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer’s elaborate design we were thus presented with a split stage, giving visual equality to the Mountfords’ decaying stately home on one side and the Frankfords’ cosier, middle-class establishment on the other. The Mountfords’ changing fortunes were marked by the intermittent removal and restoration of the furniture and paintings in their hallway with its grand staircase, while the focus of the Frankfords’ domestic environment was the drawing room where their frequent guests were entertained, with a less impressive staircase leading to the bedrooms that would prove so crucial to their offstage activities. The life of each household visibly went on even when the other was the dramatic centre of attention, with butlers, servants and visitors rushing and scurrying up and down stairs and in and out of doors whose carefully-orchestrated slamming provided an acoustic subtext to the whole play. This often left the production seeming like either a silent film comedy or a French farce – qualities confirmed by the audience’s regular explosions of unsympathetic laughter.
The passing of time was marked by clever moments such as the simultaneous erection of Christmas trees in both houses, the coloured lights on the Frankfords’ tree contrasting with the plain ones on that of the poverty-stricken Mountfords; and by Anne Frankford’s progress from the interpolated physical distress of her wedding night – rushing from her marriage bed with bloodied nightdress – through pregnancy, childbirth and the incursion of a sizeable pram into the household. Occasionally, Anne and Susan Mountford were highlighted in similar poses in their contrasting homes, or played their respective pianos in counterpoint. Often, in scene changes, they were shifted about bodily like pieces of furniture, presumably emphasising their objectification as women in a man’s world. To the unsympathetic observer, however, this device was much more suggestive of the director’s puppet-like manipulation of her actors in a production that seemed merely a mechanical exercise, an animated piece of conceptual art. Heywood’s text was, of necessity, treated in the same way, deconstructed and reconstructed in order to provide the equal weight and balance that Heywood denied to its two narratives, and deprived of its key outdoor scenes – the hawking, the Mountfords’ practising of husbandry, Anne’s journey by coach to her exile at her husband’s “manor seven mile off” (13.164) – in order to preserve the thematic juxtaposition of the two elaborately realised interior settings. This resulted in ludicrous moments such as the reappearance of Wendoll, who had fled the house naked on his discovery by Frankford, returning shoddily clothed as Anne was preparing to leave, his soliloquy (16.31-56) converted to a passionately remorseful address to the assembled company. Such textual juggling not only strained credulity but vitiated Heywood’s carefully-composed dramatic effects. But then, a dramatic text, for Mitchell, now seems to be merely a peg on which to hang her own artistic and ideological preoccupations.
Despite my reservations, I have to confess to a grudging admiration for Mitchell’s work, and there is no doubt that this production was a beautifully presented piece of precision engineering. Her neglect of her actors, though, is baffling, and here they swam or, more usually, sank, according to their individual levels of skill and experience. As well as Leo Bill, left floundering as Sir Charles, other actors in key roles struggled to create convincing or interesting characters, so that Liz White’s Anne seemed stuck on one note, whether amiable or distressed, while Sebastian Armesto’s Wendoll gave no hint as to why Anne should be sexually attracted to him. Paul Ready managed to carve something more sympathetic and complex out of Frankford, and Sandy McDade as Susan gave a fascinating study of social and sexual repression. Here, actor and director were powerfully in tune, and the emblematic physical business given to McDade – walking quickly upstairs backwards; persistently avoiding Acton’s kiss in a looped sequence of entrances and exits; contemplating suicide by hanging – supported the physical, vocal and textual elements of her characterisation. She and Ready also scored with the clarity of their enunciation, a basic acting skill not always evident elsewhere. Strikingly effective, however, was the heavyweight casting of the Frankfords’ two leading servants, with Gawn Grainger and Kate Duchêne lending all their considerable experience to the roles of Nicholas and Cicely [sic]. Their performances conveyed a sense of genuine humanity absent from the other roles, and Grainger in particular gave full value to Nicholas’s sympathetic humour, while adding a touch of sarcasm to his tone that made the footman’s true feelings intriguingly difficult to read.
For the play’s conclusion, Mitchell and her designers crafted a coup de théâtre as unexpected as it was effective. Those who knew the play probably assumed that Anne’s death would have to be staged inappropriately in one of the two houses permanently on view, requiring yet more textual tinkering. Instead, she died in a white-tiled hospital ward that rose at the front of the stage as a cramped horizontal tube, her visitors stretched awkwardly across the width of the proscenium like passengers waiting for the next train on the Circle Line. For the first time in the play, Anne and Susan shared the same physical space, separated at opposite ends of the scene but linked poignantly and forcefully by the transference of Anne’s epitaph – “Here lies she whom her husband’s kindness killed” (17.138) – from Frankford to Susan, delivered by McDade in an emphatically accusatory tone.
It is interesting that virtually everything highlighted by Martin Wiggins in his introduction to the play, from its carefully-crafted structure to its interest in the psychology of evil, was either reconfigured or ignored in Mitchell’s production. Despite this, there were moments when Heywood’s dramatic skill and experience were allowed to break through the tangled directorial interventions between text and audience, revealing something of the quality of the submerged play. In particular, the card game with its cargo of unsubtle innuendo (Scene 8), which can seem so laboured and artificial on the page, emerged in performance as a moment of almost unbearable tension, while Frankford’s discovery and exposure of the illicit lovers provided a genuinely emotional and dramatic climax. Here, the brilliance of Heywood’s language and stagecraft was permitted to function unhindered, giving full value to the moment of stasis in which Frankford realises he has embarked on a course of action that cannot be reversed, in a superb speech that I make no apology for quoting in full:
Stay, let me pause awhile.
O God, O God, that it were possible
To undo things done, to call back yesterday;
That Time could turn up his swift, sandy glass,
To untell the days, and to redeem these hours;
Or that the sun
Could, rising from the west, draw his coach backward,
Take from the account of time so many minutes,
Till he had all these seasons called again,
Those minutes and those actions done in them,
Even from her first offence; that I might take her
As spotless as an angel in my arms.
But O! I talk of things impossible,
And cast beyond the moon. (13.50-63)
This speech, not quite a soliloquy since Nicholas is at his master’s side, offered Paul Ready an all-too-rare opportunity to demonstrate what he might have made of the role had his director allowed him unimpeded access to Heywood’s text. It worked partly because, in this scene, Mitchell chose not to distract us with too much activity in the other onstage household. Perhaps it is just as well she denied the audience an interval, opting instead for an uninterrupted two-hour performance; otherwise, those who would inevitably have abandoned ship at the first opportunity would have missed this – the one moment in the production that might have convinced them that Heywood’s gripping domestic tragedy was actually worth reviving.