Thomas Heywood’s A Woman Killed with Kindness was a brave choice for director Eleanor Sax to bring to the BT, for which she should be commended, but it is hard to get truly emotionally involved in a play whose plot hinges on the defamation of a woman. The play tells the story of the Frankfords, a couple happily married until newcomer Wendoll seduces Anne Frankford, the discovery of which causes her husband to exercise the punishing “kindness” that will eventually kill her. This play is little performed, and the challenges of its gender politics show why.
The production uses the BT very well. The set is appropriately lavish without overfilling the space; designer Marisa Craine has constructed screens that counteract the constraints of the black box, and place the audience on two sides to shape the stage as a square. Craine’s costumes were equally stunning, with material that matched the set and thus provided an aesthetic cohesiveness. The one thing that should be changed here was that all actors were in tights and shoeless – there were at least three slips as a result of this.
Within this visual cohesiveness, the standard of performance was hugely varied. Heywood’s language is tricky even by Renaissance standards, and the communication of the story to the audience was made even more difficult by the apparent lack of textual understanding in the majority of the actors. There were notable exceptions in Joe Stephenson and Jonny Wiles, whose excellent performances carried the play but emphasised weaker moments. Most of the characters’ direction lacked subtlety, which contributed to the plot’s being hard to follow. While some of this was certainly due to the writing, much came from the production’s lack of focus. Pacing was a serious issue, and the play could do with being reworked through, simply to decide which scenes should be slicker, and which need more breathing space.
The poor blocking didn’t help this, with soliloquies, in particular, falling flat. Having decided to create an interesting space with the square, all scenes were performed to a gap in the audience, and none use the entire stage. Most moments had either too much nervous pacing, or felt static and therefore laboured.
Despite the fact that all characters were dressed in Renaissance-inspired clothing, their posture and movement was confusingly casual and 21st century. One of the most important moments in the play, Wendoll’s confession of love to Anne Frankford, felt particularly odd, with Wendoll grabbing Anne repeatedly, ignoring social decorum. The regular moments of improvisation between the two servant characters was also incongruous with the rest of the play; as soon as they were off script, they spoke in modern English.
Overall, Theatron Novum’s production of A Woman Killed with Kindness showed potential, but didn’t fulfil it. While designed well, the interpretation of the text itself was not treated with the care a Renaissance play demands, and rather than engaging with the misogynistic issues in the play in order to challenge them, the production instead let them slide.