LAURENCE SENELICK'S production of Women Beware Women is as fluid and incisive as the history of his work suggests it would be. One regrets only that the constraints of mortality made it impossible for Mr. Senelick to discuss his reading of the text with Thomas Middleton. For Mr. Middleton might thereby have been persuaded to eliminate or at least refine those premature bursts of anguish which mar the first act. Alternatively, Mr. Senelick might have been persuaded to abandon his brilliant championship of textually uneven plays on the grounds that world literature ought not be edited by graduate students in Comparative Literature. No one who has seen Senelick's version of the Cherry Orchard as comedy or his reshaping of Middleton will, however, take the second possibility seriously.
The problem with Women Beware Women, I take it, is Middleton's impatience with the development of the characters. To reveal the putrescence of his Jacobean world he has written a play about the destruction of three innocent if malleable youths: but instead of waiting for the three to be perverted by the Duke and his court, from the outset and in a heavy-handed way he anticipates their final downfall. Everything is hung with doom so that we can neither laugh at their innocence, which is moribund, nor being newcomers to the play ourselves, comprehend their suffering.
The whole is somewhat tenuously expressed in most of the parts, in much the same way that Professor Hoffmann can demonstrate the inevitability of any event in French politics from the occurrence of any other. The confusion is recapitulated in these lines at the end of the second scene with which Hippolito announces his incestuous designs on his niece Isabella: "The worst can be but death and let it come:/He that lives joyless, every day's his doom."
To avoid this effect, and thus make the fall of the three all the more dramatic, Senelick is forced to mute the first act. Unfortunately Leantio, the merchant's clerk who loses his high-born bride on account of his stupid, Ben Franklin punctilliousness, has some of his best and most revealing lines in the opening moments: losing them destroys some of the irony so carefully worked into succeeding scenes. But as Kenny McBain went at the role rather gingerly throughout all of last night's performance, Leantio may be better served when he settles into the part.
Similarly, some of the technical difficulties which slow the show down, making it perhaps a half hour too long, will be exorcised with practice.
Once the necessity of the youth's decline becomes known, Senelick asserts a masterly control. He counter-points the rapes and deceits which finally consume everyone on stage, (except perhaps the bourgeois Leantio, whose "breeding" makes life at court intolerable) with a rich display of period objects and customs. The two themes, the perversion of every code of conduct and the persistent and self-serving reverence for the code itself come together in the final scene: the principals all do one another in while the Duke of Florence, portrayed with a peculiar accent by Jonathan Raymond, complains that none of what is taking place is provided for in the scenario he holds before him.
There remains far too short a space to praise the company, in the style they deserve. Sheila Hart is as always matchless; it is to be regretted that as the mother of Leantio part of her character dies a-borning in the first act and the very strength of her acting, coming as it does when the play is weakest, tends to reaffirm that fact.
And rather than appending a list of the remainder of this fine cast and slurring them with indistinct praise, I shall recommend that you extract their names from the program and their merits from the stage.