Canada’s Stratford Festival is offering a rare (and treasurable) opportunity to see this Middleton/Rowley gem performed on stage.
The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Set designed by Camellia Koo. Lighting designed by Bonnie Beecher. Costumes designed by Judith Bowden. Original Composition and Sound designed by Debashis Sinha. Fight direction by John Stead. Movement direction by Valerie Moore. Staged by The Stratford Festival at The Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario, Canada, through September 23.
By David Greenham
Questions of authorship in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre will most likely never be fully answered. Contemporary records are scarce and those that are available are often contradictory. What we do know is that there is plenty of proof that collaborations between playwrights were frequent and sometimes uncredited. Thomas Middleton, evidence suggests, was a contributor to Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, All’s Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and possibly even Macbeth.
Middleton’s name may not be familiar to theatergoers, but he was a respected writer of a decidedly urban bent in terms of subject matter. His career mostly paralleled Shakespeare; he is one of the few playwrights besides the Bard who could handle a range of styles – comedy, tragedy, and history. He’s mostly known for The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), the 1613 comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, and The Changeling (1622). His final play, A Game of Chess (1624), premiered just a year after Shakespeare’s death. Its political satire was a sharp jab at negotiations over the proposed marriage between Prince Phillip, James the First’s son, and a Spanish princess. The government deemed it to be too critical and it was closed after just 9 performances. It appears that, after that misstep, Middleton was banned from writing for the stage; he died three years later. Rowley, his writing partner for The Changeling, was primarily an actor who frequently collaborated with dramatists on scripts. His on-stage specialty was playing large clowns, notably “The Fat Bishop” in A Game At Chess. (There is no evidence that he ever played Falstaff.)
The Changeling contains two parallel stories. The action takes place in a castle in Alicante, which is on the southeastern coast of Spain. The Stratford Festival production updates the decadent action to 1938, near the end of the Spanish Civil War. The major plot line centers on the intrigue surrounding Governor Vermandero (David Collins), who is determined to find happiness for his daughter, Beatrice-Joanna (Mikaela Davies). She is betrothed to Alonzo de Piracquo (Qasim Khan), but he is in love with Alsemero (Cyrus Lane). She looks to her father’s shady servant De Flores (Ben Carlson) to quietly murder Alonzo so she can be with Alsemero. As you can imagine, things don’t go as planned for the hit man and his boss.
The subplot revolves around a madhouse in which young Isabella (Jessica B. Hill) is married to a much older Alibius (Michael Spencer-Davis), the ethically-challenged head of the territory’s madhouse. Antonio (Gareth Potter), a servant of Vermandero’s, feigns madness in order to be near his beloved Isabella. Antonio is under the charge of Lollio (Tim Campbell), one of Alibius’ henchman.
In the original text, Antonio turns out to be ‘the changeling’ of the title. And there’s another madman-in-disguise on hand named Franciscus. But this part of the narrative has been streamlined in the Stratford Festival production for the sake of dramatic clarity. (The Elizabethans liked lots of complication crammed into their evening’s entertainment.) Stratford’s Literary and Editorial Director David Prosser points out in the program notes that the play suggests a broad definition of changeling — several characters indulge in two-faced actions as the twin plots unfold.
It is a rare (and treasurable) opportunity to see a play like this Middleton/Rowley gem performed on stage. The Tom Patterson Theatre, named for Stratford’s founder, is a former recreation center (it’s Canada, so it was probably at one time an ice rink). The nearly 500-seat theater places audience on all four sides; a large rectangular raised stage sits in the middle of the space. Camellia Koo’s effective set design features four arches that combine the look of a castle’s masonry stone walls with the industrial iron design you might find in an institution with bars, such as an asylum. The arches are the perfect launching pad for Bonnie Beecher’s lights, which bathe the stone arches in a warm light during the castle scenes and apply a dank shadow to the iron footings for the madhouse episodes. (There is a deft use of chiaroscuro.) “The place is holy,” Alsemero says in the very first speech of the play, adding “so is my intent.” As it turns out, he’s just about the only one in Alicante who has a holy intent in mind. The rest of the characters reflect a much more modern goal: it’s every man and woman for themselves to get what they want.
The Stratford’s large ensemble generally does right by the script, although there is some unevenness along the way. Ben Carlson’s intimidating and brutish De Flores is easily the stand out: the edge-of-your-seat machinations of the murder plot overwhelm the tale at the madhouse. His disfigured face is a sign of his monstrousness; Beatrice-Joanna finds him physically revolting. Yet she turns to him to do her dirty work. It’s deliciously evil to watch Carlson’s De Flores scheme and manipulate his way to his ultimate sensuous goal — to seduce Beatrice-Joanna in exchange for carrying out a murder at her behest. Carlson gives us a charismatically scurrilous figure; De Flores gets everything he wants and, in the end, gets everything he deserves.
At first, Mikaela Davies’ Beatrice-Joanna seems reluctant to pay the price for commissioning a crime, but she eventually accepts, even enjoys, her shadowy affair with the hired hit man. Middleton’s Freudian insight — that sexual turn-on is enhanced when dominant/submissive roles are flipped — remains as kinky as ever. Dramaturge Joanna Falck aptly points to a passage by British critic Kenneth Tynan: “where sexual vagaries are concerned there is more authentic reportage in (Middleton’s) The Changeling and Women Beware Women than in the whole of [Shakespeare's] first folio.”
Mikaela Davies successfully navigates Beatrice-Joanna’s twists, turns, and trysts. The actor infuses her character with an air of arrogance; this makes psychological sense, but you wonder what the honest-seeming Alsemero sees in her. Perhaps it’s her beautiful clothes. Judith Bowden’s costume design for the production is rich and lush. Inspired by the linens and silks of the Iberian Peninsula, the duds give the company a cool and comfortable look. The secondary female characters are in beautiful summery dresses, but Bowden’s design focuses on Beatrice-Joanna. Davies’ knows how to wear a slinky silk dress. For some performers, the length of the rectangular stage would be a challenge, but director Maxwell takes every opportunity to have Davies’ slither the length of the stage. The choice makes theatrical sense: it suggests Beatrice-Joanna’s ability to manage whatever man gets in her way. Of course, her overweening pride and ungovernable desire leads her to the inevitable result.
Also outstanding: Gareth Potter’s ‘changeling’ Antonio. Although the subplot is neglected in this staging, Potter straddles extremes in his portrait of a feigned madman who instantly reveals himself to Isabella, the young wife of the jealous Alibius. The actor is charming and quick, and he physically transforms himself back into the mad “Tony” instantly when necessary.
Maxwell, the decorated former Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, infuses plenty of juicy life into the proceedings, neatly dovetailing the corruption of Alicante’s public and private sides. The opening scene, in particular, hits the perfect note of vicious paranoia. The full company is on stage, in various groups or alone, either conducting shady business deals or keeping tabs on others who are plotting across the room. Maxwell notes that this is “a play fueled by blood and lust…yes. A play with a strikingly contemporary psychology…absolutely, yes.” Trust few and suspect everyone is the seedy guide to survival in Middleton’s world of lust, lies, and ambition. Is there any question that The Changeling is as modern as yesterday’s tweet from Donald Trump?
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.