The current star in the ‘Extreme Love’ series being shown at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling, a Jacobean musing on passion and madness. The Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, is at the helm of the uneasy play, which sits indifferently between two camps – tragedy and comedy. That is not to say that Dromgoole fails to make strong decisions in his direction, instead it is that he rigorously pursues the full potential of each moment, offering his play as both an unsightly beast and a jovial jester.
At the insistence of her father, Beatrice-Joanna is set to marry Alonzo, yet her heart is already entangled with Alsemero’s. Unable to face the prospect of being parted from her sweetheart, she implores her father’s disfigured servant, De Flores, to murder her betrothed, knowing he will succumb to her will because of his love for her. Beatrice’s sins worsen and take on truly horrific forms, and she is in good company: the subplot of Alibius imprisoning his wife inside a madhouse to maintain her loyalty is not for the faint of heart. Characters flit from one despicable deed to another with insurmountable energy.
Beatrice, played by the enchanting Hattie Morahan, dives from one repulsive act to another. Drunk with deviousness from the moment she takes her first sip, she is rendered inadequate in her quest to pass herself off as the virtuous virgin. Diaphanta and Alonzo are the innocents who feel the heavy weight of her malice in its entirety.
It is a play that fixates on the repulsive, from De Flores’s disfigured face, to a brutal stabbing onstage, the hacking off of a finger, and a charred figure haunting their perpetrator – there is plenty to truly turn the stomach. The howling inmates of the madhouse pulse up and down the stage, and in one instance perform a ridiculous and uncomfortable dance at the whim of their keeper. Middleton’s play is fixated on situating its audience into a space of discomfort, rapidly unfurling one gruesome revelation after another.
But then of course, there is humour: as Alibius’s servant, Lollio, Pearce Quigley delivers a delightfully deadpan, comic performance. His efforts to deviate the audience’s attention away from horror, into the realm of silliness are supported by many strong players, from the fool Antonio (Brian Ferguson) to the deformed De Flores (Trystan Gravelle), the comedic highs are without a ceiling.
As always, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a perfect site for an odd tale such as this. With candles aplenty and a stream of live music, the space feels transformative – it is near impossible to not be charmed by its offering.
The Changeling is the latest success from the Globe, a devious and twisted story that perfectly meditates on themes of sin, deceit and absent morality.
The Changeling is playing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 1 March. For tickets and further information, see the Shakespeare’s Globe website.