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A Woman Killed with Kindness, National Theatre

Thomas Heywood
Directed by Katie Mitchell

★★

Courtesy of the National Theatre
The National’s recent productions have been so good that I suppose it was only a matter of time before they produced one that didn’t live up to the high standards we now expect. Despite being classed as Heywood’s masterpiece, I cannot profess to having heard of A Woman Killed with Kindness before the National’s revival. Some basic research reveals that it is a critically acclaimed piece, regarded as one of the keystones of Jacobean domestic bourgeois tragedies. Having now seen it, I have to disagree; Heywood’s play is frankly rather dry. Coupled with some slightly woody performances in places, the National’s latest offering is not one that I could honestly recommend.
Let me start with a big positive. The design by Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer is magnificent. They have created two naturalistic rooms from two different houses on the stage, and what is particularly brilliant is the level of attention to detail. The house of the more affluent Frankfords is clean and beautifully decorated giving the impression of new money, whereas the house of landowner Sir Charles Mountford and his lonely sister Susan is falling apart, older and colder. Originally decked out with ornately framed paintings, the Mountford residence is stripped bare when Sir Charles is sent to prison, showing that the detail extends to the wallpaper, which is crumbling and falling away. In short, it is a superb set, one of the most impressive I have seen at the National.
Unfortunately however, the strengths stop there. The biggest problem as far as I am concerned is Heywood’s masterpiece itself. To start with, the dialogue is poor and unnatural – I accept that it was written in the 17th Century, but unlike his contemporary Shakespeare, who makes no attempt to create realistic dialogue, Heywood’s piece is a naturalistic drama with unnatural dialogue that does not suit it. My second major problem is the story line, which is dull and leaves you feeling distinctly underwhelmed. It is a tragic tale of Anne Frankford who cheats on her husband John only to be punished with kindness, eventually leading to her untimely demise. A parallel story follows the reclusive Susan Mountford, who gets caught up in her brother’s fight for pride only to be effectively ‘sold’ to her brother’s arch-nemesis. There is a potentially poignant moment at the end when Susan and Anne meet each other for the first time in the hospital at Anne’s bedside, but this is underplayed by Mitchell’s direction to such an extent that it is hardly even noticeable. In summary, I will break the mould somewhat and say that this is not a masterpiece; it is a very average Jacobean drama.
This is compounded by some questionable directing from Mitchell. The play is over two hours long, and I seemed to spend a lot of it watching Susan being carried backwards up the stairs of her house during one of several long scene changes. This type of pretention was common in her direction, and as I said one of the most poignant moments of this tragic tale was completely ignored in favour of other devices which I failed to understand. I’m sure some more knowledgeable critics will ‘get’ Mitchell’s decisions, but I am afraid I am not amongst them. Finally, the performance was sadly riddled with mediocre performances and, on occasion some distinctly woody acting. Paul Ready delivered a strong performance as John Frankford, but Liz White’s whiny Anne Frankford compounded an already turgid story line. The supporting casts and servants were also average, and the perpetrators of most of the aforementioned woody-ness.
Mitchell’s play is not a disaster. It has good elements, and it is bearable. However I can think of better things to do with my life than spend two hours without a break watching a drama which really didn’t grip or engage me at any point. Unlike Pinter’s Betrayal, where I criticised the writing but praised the performances, A Woman Killed with Kindness is a dull play compounded by some average acting. So two stars it is – spend your money on something else!
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A Woman Killed with Kindness runs at the National Theatre until 11th September 2011.

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