A Woman Killed With Kindness by Thomas Heywood (1603), at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, London
Director: Katie Mitchell
Design: Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer
Lighting: Jon Clark
Sound: Gareth Fry
The audience that had come to see this production was divided between Heywood fans and Mitchell fans. In the Mitchell camp, I couldn’t wait to see how she would follow up the whirlwind inventiveness of … some trace of her, her live cinematic interpretation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot that I saw a couple of years ago.
The play’s dual action was presented in parallel, the sumptuous set showing a cross-section of the two homes side by side. This was an ingenious way of getting around the endless back and forth of the scene changes that would surely otherwise be necessary. With both sets on stage at all times, Mitchell gained the time and means to exploit these cross-over moments instead of having to rush through them. Suddenly, the actors would fall into slow-motion, or even re-wind – there was some trace (sorry, had to be done) of the influence of film here too – drifting across the stage along to Fry’s minimalist soundscape as if underwater. Just as mesmerising was another technique Mitchell employed during these scene changes: the two actresses playing the lead roles at times became puppets, manipulated in and out of different positions by the other actors to represent the passing of time, and the routine of everyday life.
Yet it’s probably never going to be a good sign when the scene changes are more memorable than the scenes. Despite excellent acting I remained unconvinced by Heywood’s play – if there was an attempt to reflect on current issues of gender equality through this story of two women mistreated by men, it must have choked on the outdated language and forced rhymes before it could reach me. I felt like the Heywood distracted from the Mitchell, and the Mitchell distracted from the Heywood – an odd pairing that will have left fans on both sides feeling somewhat dissatisfied.