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Women Beware Women 1986 - ESC

'This project was a continuation of William Gaskill's work on Middleton (after A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and A Fair Quarrel) and a response to the claim made in some academic quarters that in hid ornate but often obscene language and in his love of grotesque and violent situations, Howard Barker is the most "Jacobean" of modern British playwrights. The production was based on two assumptions. First -- and this was presumably shared by both Barker and Gaskill -- came a feeling that Middleton's fifth act is dramatically and morally inadequate, a conventional, lazy, or desperate call for baroque machinery to clear the stage and thrill the public. Second, Howard Barker accused Middleton of a dangerous attitude to passion. Women Beware Women, he claimed, showed sexual desire as the seedbed of degradation, obliteration, and the death of human intimacy. Barker wished to correct the attitude (or rather oppose it, for the production was called a "collaboration," not an "adaptation"): rather than alter the material silently, Barker offered an edited version of Middleton's first four acts and then, after the interval, wrenched the characters away from the original catastrophe onto another planet. "Middleton says lust leads to the grave: I say desire alters perception."

Gratified desire liberates Livia's language, which became rapturously obscene, and then pushes her into political clarity. She leads a plot to have Bianca raped on the eve of her spectacular public wedding so that the structures of the exploitative state -- as it were - will be violated too. The act will be perpetrated by Sordido, who is revealed to be a kind of intellectual anarchist and is the one character to die -- jubilantly (Sordido was played by Gary Oldman, cast in new films as Joe Orton and Sid Vicious). The Ward, too, turns out to be far from the idiot he pretends.

The concepts are old-fashioned now. Barker resuscitates them now in opposition to the new morality of Reagen and Thatcher. It is deliberately provocative, for Barker would scorn an audience that simply agreed with him -- the whole production is based on dialectics -- but his scenes are full of intellectual sensationalism.

Unfortunately, the strong company relished the new material so much that some of the acting in Middleton's scenes suggested pure duty. Gaskill direction, too, was odd: servants strode languorously on and off in full view between Middleton's scenes, incongruously carrying basic scraps of furniture and slowing the tempo to a crawl. After the interval, though, each scene was bordered by an ominous blackout and was physically focused on a striking prop. It became clear that Gaskill had been parodying both the ponderousness of many dutiful revivals and indeed his own spartan anti-illusory style.

[T]he adaptation should be read because Barker has paid a Jacobean writer the unusual compliment of taking his philosophy seriously, however contentiously he interprets it. Few Renaissance productions in the last decade have really suggested that the play makes contact with conditions in today's society. This production opposed the tendency to use classic texts as a vehicle for two brands of escapism -- bookishness and sensationalism.' 

Tony Howard, RORD 2 (1986-1987), 70-1