Taking Liberties

Although written nearly 400 years apart, Women Beware Women (1621) and Posh (2010) are both about sexual and political intrigue in high society. While Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (at the National) is based on a true scandal involving Grand Duke Francesco I and his Venetian mistress at the end of the 16th century, the Royal Court’s Posh imagines a present-day scandal in something akin to the latter-day Bullingdon Club at Oxford University. Both deal with an extreme feeling of entitlement among the aristocratic elite.

However, that is as far as the resemblance goes. Posh, whose limited run has ended but which deserves a further airing, is light entertainment, while Women Beware Women is a truly great play. Its language, bleakness, wit and psychological truths are largely as good as Shakespeare’s, and sometimes even sharper in witty innuendo and bitterness. 

The duke’s court is a place of extreme cynicism, sexual incontinence and betrayal. An uncle begins an incestuous affair with his niece, who is duped by her aunt into agreeing to it, and into marrying a vicious dolt to conceal it. A (different) bride of 16 is pimped to the duke by the same meddling aristocratic aunt — played exquisitely by Harriet Walter — who turns the betrayed young husband into her own gigolo. He then becomes the victim of an honour killing, set up by the duke. 

But if sexual licence turns into a nightmare, marriage and its terms seem little better: one intelligent girl, whose father insists she must marry (and give her dowry to) a brutal ignoramus, laments that “no misery surmounts a woman’s. Men buy their slaves, but women buy their masters.”

There is no shortage of wicked, stupid and greedy behaviour by men in this play despite its title. But the action is driven by the intrigue of the vicious Harriet Walter figure, who ruins both young women, and presumably Middleton meant something by choosing the title. The dying young Duchess Bianca warns women against women very clearly in her penultimate speech:

“Oh the deadly snares

That women set for women, without                                          pity

Either to soul or honour! Learn by me

To know your foes. In this belief I die:

Like our own sex, we have no enemy,     no enemy!”

Yet Marianne Elliott, the director of this otherwise inspired production, has chosen to cut this out. At first, I thought I’d simply missed it, as the final scene is a menacing triumph of theatre: at the duke’s wedding ball, where terrible things happen amid semi-darkness and poisonous smoke and characters move in a wonderful rotating set in all directions towards their doom, it would have been easy to do. But these lines were deliberately cut.

Directors are entitled to revise plays and cut them and this one, at three hours, is far too long. Cutting large parts of the final act, and substituting a much better and less wordy spectacle was a very clever idea in this production. But to censor Bianca’s central, dying thought about women, so clearly related to the title of the play, is taking direct-orial freedom too far. Perhaps Ms Elliott objected to the implied misogyny, perhaps she thought it excessive, but what she has done seems to me to be a contemporary form of bowdlerising. 

Altogether, the production seems to have been free with the red pencil. It shows little respect for an audience that has come to listen to a Jacobean writer and to imagine it can’t handle Jacobean language. For example, a greedy mother-in-law wants to go to the duke’s banquet partly for the sweetmeats, or as her daughter-in-law says in the original text: “For some dry sucket or a colt in marchpane.” In Elliott’s production the line is: “For a stale French fancy or a sugar mouse.” The new line may be more user-friendly but I object to being patronised by an over-free translation, and what sounded like an anachronistic hint of Mr Kipling. I question whether there were French fancies in Jacobean England. Otherwise, this is an outstanding production, full of real menace and a sense of tragic entrapment in the sorrows of human wickedness and weakness. 

Posh, by contrast, though well written, well produced and enjoyable, is extremely slight. The upper-class undergraduate members of the Riot Club meet for one of their dinners at a gastropub near Oxford, where they intend to get completely “chateaued” on carefully-chosen wine, fill up their sickbags, trash the place and think of something both original and awful to do. What they do is indeed bad but no more original than the behaviour of any drunken yob: they beat up the publican and grope his daughter. The question then is: what will happen to their brilliant future careers. Can Daddy fix it?

The dialogue is sharp and funny. I’m told by those who know that it does very closely resemble the speech patterns of Bullingdon types today. The playwright, Laura Wade, must have good contacts and a good ear. And while the Bullingdon argot is often irritating when not actually repellent, no one can mistake these ghastly undergraduates for fools. Although they are clever and well-educated, they are pettily cruel and somewhat emotionally stunted. The scene with a call girl whom they expect to service them all under the dining table is a clever portrayal of their sexual ineptitude.

However, bolted on to this successful drama is an unsuccessful moral. It emerges that the Riot Club isn’t just a silly dining club for spoilt rich gits: it has a much more serious and sinister purpose. A former member, Lord Somebody, appears at the end like an Establishment deus ex machina to reveal that the club’s real function is to preserve and promote the long-term political power of the upper classes and to keep the ghastly proles at bay. This is entirely unconvincing, both within the play’s own terms and outside them. It just seems silly, and it reduces this work from a successful piece of theatre into an only half-successful piece of juvenilia. But if Posh fails almost completely to touch the darkness of great Jacobean tragedy, it is still good fun.

It was  mischievous of the Royal Court to stage Posh before the election. This was seen in some quarters as a right-on lefty attempt to cock a snook at the Conservatives. But with the former Bullingdon member David Cameron ensconced in 10 Downing Street, it might be both fair and commercial to give it another run, perhaps in the West End in the successful footsteps of Enron and Jerusalem.

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