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Did Katie Kill a Woman With Kindness?

Womankilled Katie Mitchell's latest for the National Theatre, A Woman Killed With Kindness, doesn't get off to a great start.

The first scene is at a wedding reception, a long table set with white table cloth and laden with drinks and a lovely big flower arrangement sits front of stage. It pushes the actors to the back of the stage, obscuring your view at the formative scene setting bit of the play.

What followed for the next hour is a series of what I can only imagine are, having not read Thomas Heywood's play, a series of vignettes giving a flavour of the story.

These are played out on two sets, one the house of John Frankford (Paul Ready) and his new wife Anne (Liz White) takes up two thirds of the stage and the other third is the house of Sir Charles Mountford (Leo Bill) and his reclusive sister Susan (Sandy McDade).

While characters are talking on one set, the characters in the other are doing stuff - the servants spend a lot of time efficiently bustling about doing servanty stuff. It can be very distracting or maybe the vignettes just aren't engaging enough.

John and Anne's story is that the morning after their wedding Sir Charles gets beaten in a wager by Sir Francis Acton (Nick Fletcher) and in a fit of anger shoots one of his huntsmen. Wendoll (Sebastian Armesto) comes to tell the newlyweds what has happened and is (for reason's I couldn't fathom) invited to stay.

Month's pass, the pregnant Anne is seduced by Wendoll. A servant snitches, John plans to catch them in the act, does, bans Anne from the house and from seeing the children. She starves herself to death.

In Sir Charles' story, he gets sent to prison, his sister spends their inheritance getting him released, he borrows money, can't repay it. Sir Francis offers to help but Sir Charles won't accept money from his arch-enemy. Francis falls for Susan and decides that the only way to win her favour is to secretly bail out her brother.

When Sir Charles discovers who his secret financier is, he offers Susan to him by way of a thanks (nice). Francis being a gent says he'll marry Susan which she reluctantly agrees to.

So, my problems are thus. The first half is like a different play. The vignettes approach makes it hard to identify with the characters or get any real measure of them. It is littered with little devices like the bustling servants contrasted with the principle characters moving around very slowly. Then there is an inexplicable little bit of movement/dance theatre and a bit where some of the actors move backwards.

The second half (there is no interval) feels different. There is more dialogue, less frenetic activity and bustle/slow-mo stuff. But it comes a little too late. By that point I really didn't care, I was hoping Sir Charles would shoot everyone in a fit of rage.

Part of the problem is that the more interesting Sir Charles storyline is shoved off to one side and feels detatched and secondary.

The John and Anne story is hampered by its setting. I don't have a problem with plays being put into a different period but when a character is going on about how sweaty he is from a hard ride on his horse to deliver a message and he's wearing a pin stripe suit with his trousers tucked into his socks it is more comical than anything else.

Likewise the theme of women's modesty and reputation has its impact somewhat diminished in an early 20th century house. With it's carpeted stairs and white banisters it feels more like a soap opera and we all know about the morals in those. Except that the character of Anne is often so lacklustre for a woman seduced and having an affair under her husbands nose, her demise felt melodramatic rather than tragic.

It's a real shame because in many ways it is a very accomplished production. The National staff once again show off their set building skills with not a wobbly wall or flimsy stair in site. And there are some great performances - Leo Bill never fails to impress even when pushed to one side of the stage.

I'd like to see another production of this to see how much the play is to blame and how much Katie Mitchell. Don't think this one is going to be transferring anywhere.

I'm going to give it two stars purely because writing the review has reminded me how frustrating and, despite the energy, how utterly boring it was at times. This was an early preview performance though so perhaps it will get more coherent and more interesting. And perhaps they will get rid of that table.

A Woman Killed With Kindness is on at the Lyttleton Theatre in rep until 2011.


Katie M directed Mr W in ...some trace of her which I loved and it was far more out there in it's production than this was but worked brilliantly