The main house at the Young Vic is like a chameleon – every time I go there the layout seems to have been reorganised. In fact, that is the beauty of this theatre – it is completely flexible and adaptable for any kind of show. And this production of 'The Changeling' proves no exception with the seating and acting area radically different from any configuration I think I have seen before. On one side of the auditorium is a steep bank of seats which is separated from the acting area by a large, floor-to-ceiling net which we have to watch the action through. On the opposite side of the auditorium is a small gallery housing more of the audience who have a ground-level view of the action.
Written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley and first performed in 1622, 'The Changeling' is widely recognised as one of the best Jacobean tragedies. It has the feel of a split personality which may well be the result of two writers sharing the workload. And that split-personality is also found in the plot which has two rather different strands to it.
In the main plot, Beatrice-Joanna (Sinead Matthews) is in love with Alsemero (Harry Hadden-Paton), but her father has already arranged for her to be married to someone else. So, Joanna enlists the help of De Flores, a servant she hates, to get rid of her fiancé. Actually she hopes that she can 'kill two birds with one stone' and get rid of De Flores as well if he is discovered as her fiancé’s murderer. Unfortunately, De Flores is totally besotted with Joanna and is not easily bought-off. What he wants is 'pleasure' and nothing less than her virginity as his reward. The sub-plot is set in a hospital or home for the mentally ill (modelled on Bedlam), where a young wife Isabella is kept locked-up by her jealous, and much older husband.
There is a strong sense of melodrama both in the play itself and also in Joe Hill-Gibbins's direction which sometimes borders on pantomime or farce, or both. For example, De Flores tries to drown Alonzo in a bowl of punch, and when Alsemero takes the woman he thinks is his bride to bed, they cover each other with jelly or some other desert from the wedding feast. There are also some nice touches in the sound design, especially when a door is opened onto the room where the wedding dancing is taking place, and we hear snatches of songs which (humorously) match the action in the banquet room.
Sinead Matthews' Joanna is something of a spoilt child, but is also an attractive, intelligent and manipulative woman. Though she says she hates De Flores, she is also magnetically attracted to him. It is a relationship based on fascination as well as revulsion. When she has been raped by him again at the wedding she says that “This fellow has undone me endlessly”, but there is a hint in her voice that she is not entirely unhappy about those experiences. In Zubin Varla's De Flores we find an instantly recognisable villain, almost in the silent film tradition, but there is considerable depth to his character and we come to believe that he really loves Joanna. The relationship between Joanna and de Flores is powerfully described in a tense scene between Mr Varla and Ms Matthews when she realises she cannot pay for his 'services' merely in cash. There is fine support from the rest of the cast including Harry Hadden-Paton as the duped husband Alsemero and Eleanor Matsuura as a voluptuous and sensual Isabella.
At first, I thought the action might involve projectiles being launched around the auditorium which would explain the necessity of the large net separating the main audience group from the acting area. In the end, though, no such missiles appeared, and I found myself struggling to find a reason for the net's inclusion in the design. Interestingly, you may think that watching a play through a net dangling in front of you might be distracting. But not so, because one quickly forgets that it is even there.
Revitalised for a modern audience, this version of 'The Changeling' has a strong, underlying sense of fun about it, fitting perhaps for the upcoming festive season. But Joe Hill-Gibbins keeps everything tightly in check so it never gets out of control, even though it threatens to at times. Overall, it is a stimulating and highly effective production which proves enormously enjoyable.
"A perturbing, often blackly funny evening that serves the play’s lewdness and lunacy with unfettered, fast-moving glee."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
Quentin Letts for Daily Mail
Natasha Tripney for The Stage
"A lively production."
Michael Billington for Guardian