The Changeling is one of a handful of plays – along with The Duchess of Malfi and A Woman Killed with Kindness – that convinced me I wanted to spend so much of my time reading, watching and writing about Renaissance theatre. It’s also the first play I ever performed in (I was Alonzo, since you ask) and, as such, it has a special place in my affections. Having never actually seen it staged (and having missed Joe Hill-Gibbens’ 2012 Young Vic production) I was looking forward to seeing it on the Sam Wanamaker stage. I’ll be seeing it again in February and will be writing a full review elsewhere, but for now I wanted to make a few brief comments, first about comedy, and then about sightlines.
Last month, I wrote about the Globe’s production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which I thought generated unpleasant and uncritical laughter. It’s not that there isn’t humour in the play, but the production harnessed humour in such a way as to obscure the terrible fate of Annabella. The Changeling, like ‘Tis Pity, is also comic (indeed, even more obviously so) and the Globe actors made sure to capitalize on the potential for laughter. I didn’t find this troubling, as I did with ‘Tis Pity but I wasn’t always sure it was successful, or rather, I felt that it was a shame that the attention to comic opportunities was not matched by attention to other tonal possibilities. For example, Trystan Gravelle’s De Flores was near-unflappable and charismatic; displaying a fine sense comic timing, he frequently got the audience on side with a well-judged aside. For the most part, this was interesting and effective, but I didn’t really get the sense of the other side of the character. He didn’t seem ugly enough, angry enough, or in much physical or psychic pain. The play seems to demand that its actors embody these contraries, but I felt as if Gravelle addressed only part of the role. De Flores’ disposal of Alonzo, in which he moved from a brutal frenzy into a detached calmness, achieved the kind of effect I was hoping for, but this kind of complexity was not sustained.
My other gripe with the production is also a gripe with how the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is being used. Last year, I complained about sightlines at The Knight of the Burning Pestle and I found myself again frustrated by what I couldn’t see. My view of Beatrice-Joanna and De Flores, revealed in the closet, was pretty much entirely blocked by the actors on-stage. I’m assuming the view is not blocked for people in more central seats; if this is right, it seems a shame that only some people can see. It’s been argued that Renaissance theatre practice privileged listening over watching, but I don’t really understand what is gained by not being able to see. I suppose it could be said that the blocked sightlines convey something of the confusion of the moment, but I’d rather have the drama of the revelation. Given that it’s easier to see facial expressions at a place like the Sam Wanamaker, where everyone is in close proximity to the stage, it seems a shame not to see the expressions of the actors at this critical moment. Maybe I came with a skewed expectation, but I left frustrated.