THE CHANGELING at Southwark Playhouse
“a slick, stylish, and refreshing take on a Renaissance play”
Tinny Italian pop music, a mini-fridge full of champagne, and, in the centre of the stage, a long wooden boardroom table surrounded by high-backed chairs. ‘The Changeling’, Middleton and Rowley’s 17th-century play, adapted and directed by Ricky Dukes, takes place entirely in this boardroom (designed by Sorcha Corcoran), with the cast in mid-century dress (excellently created by Alice Neale). The play follows Beatrice-Joanna (Colette O’Rourke), who, betrothed to a man she does not love, seeks to murder her fiancée. When Beatrice enlists the help of her servant De Flores (Jamie O’Neill), who is as obsessed with her as she is disgusted by him, both are drawn into a complex current of desire and murder.
Originally featuring a parallel plot set in a madhouse, this production bravely subsumes the comedic subplot into the tragic main plot but retains a semblance of the madhouse setting for the second act. While it scraps their storyline, the production also retains the madhouse inmates, here recast as The Patients, the house band who interrupt the tragic proceedings to croon wedding-singer style, bounce mega-balloons around the audience, and bathe the stage in disco lighting.
The production is a slick, stylish, and refreshing take on a Renaissance play. The staging is often particularly impressive, and manages to do a lot with very little, thanks in large part to Stuart Glover’s stunning and, at times, very complex lighting design. Even though the boardroom table never moves, we get everything from catacombs to fire. One particularly impressive scene sees De Flores and Alonzo (Alex Bird) descending into the castle vaults, lit cleverly by headlamps worn by the rest of the cast to create the illusion of tunnels.
The influence of Daniel Fish’s dark staging of ‘Oklahoma!’ is evident, with Jamie O’Neill, who is excellent, bringing a wounded and vulnerable desperation to De Flores’ sinister perversity, which very nearly gleans our sympathy. Refusing to cast De Flores as purely revolting and imagining him instead as someone who Beatrice might mutually desire works very well.
“stylish and unflaggingly entertaining”
It would be possible for the cast to lean even further into this fruitful dynamic, were they given a more intimate space. Instead, the interruptions of The Madhouse, though occasionally well-placed, are frequently distracting. All eleven cast members are on-stage almost constantly, navigating around the boardroom table which, while stylish looking, never feels necessary and is instead mostly a hindrance. Taking up almost all available space, it means that most scenes take place with actors entirely separated by a large piece of wood. This dampens some of the sinister sensuality and is a shame in a play that is essentially about desiring bodies.
The best parts of this play come, instead, when the production leans into sparser staging, and leverages the uncanniness of the space. One moment, where De Flores and Beatrice kneel together on the table in the centre of the chaos created, is particularly powerful.
Frequently, however, the play expends too much energy in the wrong places, and, as it reaches its tragic climax, becomes almost claustrophobic. By the end, the audience must contend not only with the table, but also with eleven cast members, fake blood, confetti, and two types of balloon.
Paradoxically, less to do would give the excellent cast more to work with. However, despite the lack of breathing room, this is a stylish and unflaggingly entertaining production. The ‘excessive’ aspects also undoubtedly most engage the audience, and Lazarus is, after all, a company designed to do exactly this.
THE CHANGELING at Southwark Playhouse
Reviewed on 10th October 2023
by Anna Studsgarth
Photography by Charles Flint
Previously reviewed at Southwark Playhouse: