Putting on a play at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the architectural equivalent of heartthrob casting. Forget what’s actually happening on stage; it’s an effort of supreme will just to stop perving on the carpentry and the detail and the candles – oh the candles. Three hours of fragile, twinkling candlelight and I begin to wonder why we ever bother illuminating theatres in any other way (sorry lighting designers).
The building, then, is the immediate star of any show it stages. Dominic Dromgoole’s production of The Changeling, Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s gloriously bloody tale of murder, lust and deceit (the Holy Trinity of Jacobean drama), lightly accepts this, allowing the space to shine – or flicker – as much as the play that fills it. Pauses to appreciate the flame-pricked gloom or the delicate choreography of lighting the dangling chandeliers are just as important as the action they punctuate. The dim, moody atmosphere of the Playhouse, meanwhile, is forgiving of the gore and excess of Jacobean tragedy. What could be sheer Hammer Horror under the glare of bright lights seems no more than appropriately gruesome in this murky house of shadows.
Still, Dromgoole doesn’t exactly sidestep the more lurid aspects of Middleton and Rowley’s tale. Though a tragedy in name, The Changeling has its share of the ridiculous. The swift about-turns, the riotous madhouse subplot and the sheer volume of asides all lend the play to a blackly satirical, tongue-in-cheek interpretation, one that Dromgoole and co gleefully seize upon. Indeed, you begin to wonder whether The Changeling isn’t one big theatrical joke; a wickedly ironic comedy clothed in dark tragic garb.
When they wrench our attention away from the pillars and chandeliers, Dromgoole and his cast offer us a conspiratorial Beatrice-Joanna, a surprisingly dry Deflores and an unusually uncomplicated chorus of merry asylum inmates. What is the nature of madness, after all, in a fictional world where love seems to make madmen, fools and murderers of everyone? Desire is either a spur to bloodshed, in the case of Beatrice-Joanna and her servant Deflores’ swift dispatch of future hubby Alonzo in favour of new suitor Alsemero, or a cause for counterfeit delusion in that of asylum mistress Isabella’s would-be lovers. The only real constancy is the change of the title.
Dromgoole transforms it all – from the venom-laced insults Beatrice-Joanna hurls at Deflores to the gathering puddles of spilled blood – into comic potential. This Changeling is, first of all and unashamedly, entertainment. The obligatory closing jig, in which the blood smeared corpses rise and playfully skip around with their living counterparts, sneaking grins at one another and the audience, neatly captures the spirit of the whole. The many asides, so easily rendered as clunky interjections, are bursts of irrepressible, almost childish emotion. The often ditched asylum subplot is an unapologetic romp, with joyful turns from Brian Ferguson as fake fool Antonio and Pearce Quigley as a restless, wise-cracking Lollio.
But it’s the production’s take on Beatrice-Joanna that really makes it. Hattie Morahan – always a treat – has the audience on her side from the off. Whether giddy with infatuation after her first meeting with Alsemero, plotting the slaughter of doomed fiancé Alonzo, or wriggling her way out of the labyrinth that murder – and the reward of her virginity demanded by willing assassin Deflores – lands her in, there’s a glint in her eyes that seems to say “you’re with me, aren’t you?” Both her revulsion and attraction to Trystan Gravelle’s shruggingly sardonic Deflores, meanwhile, have a youthful impetuosity, her emotions plastered all over her face. Even when things are at their most desperate, Morahan’s Beatrice-Joanna is apt, like us, to contort her mouth into an awkward smile.
Who knew tragedy could be this fun?