'A Woman Killed With Kindness' review or 'Clockwork misery.'

'A Woman Killed with Kindness', Thomas Heywood
National Theatre, Tuesday 19th July
Written for The Ham & High 

Katie Mitchell has shifted Thomas Heywood’s 1603 play to 1919, no doubt to underscore the theme of women’s rights – or lack thereof. It is a concept that’s is hard to miss in this double threaded domestic drama, which sees two women pawned, poked and punished by a number of powerful men.

Vicki Mortimer and Lizzie Clachlan’s lavish set locates two women – faithful sister Susan and not so faithful wife Anne Frankford – and their homes, side by side. The manor house in which Susan lives is extravagant but crumbling; dripping with paintings, a fine chandelier and a decaying spiral staircase. Anne and husband John’s middle class house is slightly less lush – but it is their mutual powerlessness that binds these two ladies together.

Mitchell uses her customary visual inventiveness to cement the connection between sullen Susan (Sandy McDade) and the sultrier Anne (Liz White). They frequently mirror each other’s actions, ascending or descending the stairs in harmony and even finishing each other’s phrases at the piano. 


It is the flourishes in between the main action that most impress. In one extravagant sweep, Mitchell depicts the passing of months with mesmerising precision. Paintings are swiftly removed from walls, lighting fixtures extracted by men who move like clockwork and, amidst this all, a chandelier makes its slow descent. It’s like watching Michael Attenborough’s swooshing cloud shots, as day merges into night, in high definition.

Indeed, the aesthetic texture cannot be faulted. The problem is the text. Despite Mitchell's heavy cuts and contextual shift this remains a typically weighty renaissance drama. The script positively sinks under the weight of its own metaphors. Emotions are endlessly described but rarely released. The heart is compared to every object under the sun – and yet it never really beats in this production.