The lunatics are taking over the asylum at the Young Vic. Gobbling in the wake of Michael Sheen's sectioned 'Hamlet' comes Joe Hill Gibbins' fairly mental take on Jacobean sex and violence-fest, 'The Changeling' – with the beautifully lucid and increasingly desperate Jessica Raine as Beatrice-Joanna, a rich girl who kills to avoid an arranged marriage.
It's a sign of the Euro-centric flair that makes the Old Vic's younger sib the sexiest theatre in London. And a reminder of the long hand of Berlin avant-gardist Thomas Ostermeier, who still outclasses his imitators. Jacobean drama is full of psychotic, Tarantino-ish twists on the great tragedies of the preceding generation, often written by committee.
'The Changeling' is a challenge to stage; partly because of an on-stage virginity test that should strain the credulity of even the most elastic new-age wits; partly because Middleton's creepy main story, in which Beatrice-Joanna's disfigured servant murders her unwanted fiancé in exchange for sex, is tenuously yoked to a tedious subplot set in a madhouse, penned by John Rowley. Hill-Gibbins, a vivid and inspired director who just fails to truly organise his material here, takes his cues from the weaker subplot – with Beatrice-Joanna and co doubling as writhing inmates in the bedlam scenes.
Ultz's ingeniously complicit set makes pervs of us all: we pry on the unfolding psycho-sexual blood bath through peep-holes, wire netting or even on-stage wheelchairs. Raine's Beatrice-Joanna is tremendous: speaking Middleton's verse with delicacy and relish, she makes the downward-bound trajectory of this victim-turned-murderess agonisingly clear.
It's not her fault that her relationships with her flaky-faced servant De Flores (played as a prim rapist by Daniel Cerqueira) and others are less distinct: the honour-bound world around them having been shelved in favour of an increasingly compelling orgy of gibbering, sex and raspberry jelly.
It's brilliant and muddled. Roles are confusingly doubled. But the set pieces zing: Punchdrunk's Maxine Doyle makes the wedding guests go through the motions in a cynically hectic aerobic routine to Beyoncé's 'Single Ladies'. And Hill-Gibbins even solves the poser of how to make sex work on stage; jelly and cream from the wedding feast are smeared, like blood, on the guilty and the lustful in this messy but thrilling production, in which everyone comes to a very sticky end.
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