edited by Carol Ryles and Rachael Hains-Wesson
Photo by Louisa Ong
The sounds of Jacobean music gently flooded the Dolphin Theatre, setting the scene to Howard Barker’s 1986 adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s classic play Women Beware Women, a strange yet apropos admixture of old and new. Having already experienced Barker’s plays as an audience member and studied his plays in the classroom, I had an inkling of the debauchery that would soon follow. Howard Barker is known for creating Theatre of Catastrophe, where each performance is a challenge for both actors and audience members. Unlike traditional formulaic theatre, which supposes the beneficial unity of thought and clarity, Barker insists on the “the bewilderment of the audience in the face of persistent dislocation” (Rabey 1999).
In 2010 and 2011 director and designer, Associate Professor Stephen Chinna, staged Barker’s The Fence in its Thousandth Year, and then John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. The high quality of production and veracity and fervour of the student performances in both plays left me with a lasting impact of both wonder and amazement. Therefore, I was anticipating more of the same regarding last night’s production of Women Beware Women, a story of lust and betrayal.
In this production, the lovely Bianca marries Leantio, but is soon seduced by the lecherous Duke, who rules over a corrupt court full of incestuous affairs and deceitful machinations. As I left the theatre, I did so with a Barker-like notion, “the sense of having witnessed too much,” but not necessarily in the manner that Chinna had intended. Instead of feeling disgust and horror, I could now only muster mild grunts of amusement. For me, this particular play lacked teeth and especially of what I have come to expect of a Chinna play.
Nevertheless, the acting was exemplary. Standout performances by Jackson Hart as the Duke and David Roman as Sordido elicited open guffaws and the hope they would feature more prominently after intermission. As Leantio, Patrick Whitelaw expertly captured the excitement of marital bliss, the horror of discovering its lie and the moral tightrope that led to the play’s disturbing denouement. Aisling Murray portrayed Bianca with a curious mixture of purity and experience.
While I felt the actors did their best with these characters, the absurdity of the second half elevated the production to satirical heights, failing to inspire either the perturbation or awe that Barker longs for in his audience. It was much easier to remove oneself from the action rather than viscerally engage with it. I’m not sure whether this was the decision of the set design (several tiered rows, creating emotional and physical detachment) or Barker’s own out-dated assumptions about the role of women. His addition of a rape in the second half serves to further reinforce the polemic of liberation through sexual violence.
Women Beware Women is a tough play to sit through. Nevertheless, as a fellow student-thespian, I do recommend seeing UWA student-actors’ immense effort and stellar performances.
Women Beware Women plays until May 26 at the Dolphin Theatre, UWA.
Rabey, David Ian. Howard Barker; Politics and Desire. London: Macmillan, 1989.Theatre of Catastrophe. The Wrestling School. Web. 22 May 2012.
Barker, Howard. Arguments for a Theatre. New York: Manchester UP, 1997. Theatre of Catastrophe. The Wrestling School. Web. 22 May 2012.
About Jen Perry
Jen is presently completing her honours year in German at the University of Western Australia, and was on the student-editing committee for Trove; a multimedia creative arts journal from 2010 to 2011.