Our second BFI Southbank season begins on Monday 25 March with a screening of Granada’s 1965 adaptation of Women Beware Women. This will be followed by a discussion with Dame Diana Rigg (who plays Bianca in the production) and Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company Gregory Doran (a few tickets are still available here). Following on from Amanda Wrigley’s selection of Greek tragedy on the small screen last June, the six programmes feature Jacobean tragedy made for television (although strictly speaking Hamlet at Elsinore is after a play written in the final years of Elizabeth I). Over the next month or so (the season runs until 29 April) I will be writing about each of the productions and also hoping to prompt thoughts and responses from those who attend the screenings.
Blood and Thunder at Granada
Women Beware Women, together with a paired small-screen production of The Changeling, are among the earliest television adaptations of non-Shakespearean early modern drama to survive. Before the Second World War Royston Morley had mounted a production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (17 January 1938). Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday was also seen that year (on 11 December 1938) via the fledgling service from Alexandra Palace, as was a presentation of Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (19 December 1938); all of these pre-war productions are lost.
Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (22 June 1947) is one of a group of early modern plays shown in the aftermath of the war; the others were Marlowe’s Edward II (1947), Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1948) and The Duchess of Malfi (1949) by John Webster, all of which were produced by Stephen Harrison; again, all are lost. A 1959 Stephen Harrison production of Ben Jonson’s Volpone is preserved in the archives but there is no known copy of Peter Dews’ version of the same writer’s The Alchemist (broadcast 25 May 1961).
Broadcast on the ITV network on the Monday evening of 11 January 1965, Women Beware Women was preceded a week before by a Granada production of The Changeling by Middleton and Thomas Rowley. The two plays were shown under a series title of Blood and Thunder, and both were adapted and produced by Philip Mackie. As the late Tise Vahimagi details in his BFI ScreenOnline profile of the producer, Mackie had been Head of Drama for Granada Television from 1958 to 1962, after which he continued to work regularly for the ITV contractor as a freelance.
A decade on from the company’s foundation (it had gone on-air on 3 May 1956) Granada Television was particularly proud of its achievements in current affairs and drama. The company had an early success in late 1956 with a television version of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger as staged at the Royal Court, and in the late 1950s it broadcast highly regarded productions of plays by the ‘Manchester school’ of playwrights that been originally written for Miss Horniman’s Gaiety Theatre. In a Guardian review of Women Beware Women, Mary Crozier wrote:
Granada have always been the foremost company in television drama, finding out plays old and not so old and putting them in groups tied by their time in dramatic history and their social significance. (‘Women Beware Women on ITV’, 12 January 1965, p. 7)
Philip Mackie was responsible for a strong tradition of historical adaptations at Granada, beginning with Saki (1962), a series drawn from the short stories of H. H. Munro, and continuing with The Victorians and Maupassant (both 1963) as well as Paris 1900 (1964), which adapted six farces by George Maupassant. Although on a more modest scale, the Blood and Thunder pair should be seen in this line, which would continue later in the decade with the lavish and immensely popular The Caesars (1968). A decade after Blood and Thunder, Mackie was also the leading creative force for one of the defining television films of the 1970s, The Naked Civil Servant (Thames for ITV, 1975), with John Hurt playing Quentin Crisp.
Thomas Middleton and Women Beware Women
Thomas Middleton, who is championed by the scholar Gary Taylor as ‘our other Shakespeare’, was a prolific writer in early 17th century London. He wrote plays for a number of different companies and playhouses and he also scripted many civic entertainments. He almost certainly collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens and after Shakespeare’s death he contributed significant revisions to the versions that we know today of Macbeth and Measure for Measure.
Many of Middleton’s plays, including The Roaring Girl (1611) written with Thomas Dekker, are centred on figures who Richard Dutton describes as ‘strong, resourceful female characters’ (‘Middleton and his women’, Women Beware Women, National Theatre programme, 2010, unpaginated). In Women Beware Women, which was probably written in 1621, there are three prominent women, at least two of whom, Bianca and Isabella, are subject to patriarchal subjection from their husband (Leantio) and father (Guardiano) respectively. Sutton praises ‘the intelligence, wit and free spirit of the women characters [who are] painted with a degree of realism which suggests real sympathy’.
The scene is set in Florence and elements of the plot are drawn from events in the Medici family known to have occurred around 1580. Two distinct stories of seduction come together around Livia, a widow who helps the Duke seduce (we would today say rape) Bianca and who lies to Isabella about her parentage and so facilitates her affair with her uncle Hippolito. Bianca’s husband, Leantio, is bought off by the Duke, and is then seduced by Livia. As the plottings unravel, imperatives for revenge are acted out at a masque to celebrate the Duke’s betrothal to Bianca, and as is to be expected many of the characters die violently in a very short space of time.
Women Beware Women is a dark and cynical tale of sexual desire and power, and of the inevitable links between the two. As John Jowett has written in the introduction to the play in the recent authoritative volume edited by Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino:
The play presents an image of the psychology of human behaviour that… denies sentiment or illusion, yet recognises, especially in the case of Bianca, the force of human passions… characters speak almost obsessively or material value as if it were abstract value. In Middleton’s Italy, though it is a country populated with strange vices, the human characters and social mores are disturbingly familiar. This is a class-conscious play, and Florence is Jacobean London writ large. (Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 1491)
No specific productions of the drama can be identified until 1962, when the first modern professional production on the stage was given by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Directed by Anthony Page, this opened at London’s Arts Theatre on 4 July that year and starred Pauline Jameson as Livia and Nicol Williamson as Leantio. In the Financial Times, T. C. Worsley described the performance as ‘fascinating’ and wrote of the play:
The play is Jacobean psychological drama, a sort of Tennessee Williams of the time, in which men and women live in a stew of sexual corruption unredeemed by belief, faith, or even hope… It is the world of today as the Italian cinema sees it, and we feel that reality pulsing through the play. (5 July 1962)
The play has been staged twice more by the RSC, in 1969 and 2006, and other notable productions include an adaptation by Howard Barker at the Royal Court in 1988 and a spectacular National Theatre staging by Marianne Elliott in 2010. The only other British television production is a version presented by The Open University in 1980 as part of the A203 Seventeenth Century England course – and this will be the subject of my next post.
‘A thundering production’
Women Beware Women was treated with respect by the television critics in 1965. Mary Crozier in The Guardian described it as ‘a thundering production’ while Lyn Lockwood for The Daily Telegraph characterised the television adaptation as ‘a most efficiently conducted tour of sin among a group of pleasure seekers in 17th century Florence’ (12 January 1965). The anonymous critic of The Times paid the most attention to the inevitable cuts to the text that halved the drama’s normal running time to 75 minutes, writing:
… it was inevitable that Mr Philip McKie’s adaptation of Middleton’s grim morality play turned [it] into a melodrama of facile vice and too easily corrupted virtue. Obviously to cut a play is to impoverish it, and only the intermittent pangs of conscience which torment Middleton’s lecherous, treacherous, ambitious characters can be spared if the play’s lurid action is to be made clear. Nevertheless, judged as cynically garish melodrama, Mr McKie’s adaptation was neat and skilful. (‘Grim morality play’, 2 January 1965, p. 12)
The text is compressed throughout with many of the major speeches shortened and Middleton’s language subjected to a light updating. In Act I scene 2, ‘If now this daughter / So tendered – let me come to your own phrase, sir / Should offer to refuse him’ becomes ‘If your daughter should to offer to refuse him’, and there are numerous similar examples throughout. At the climax, Livia’s great line ‘Like our own sex, we have no enemy, no enemy’ becomes ‘We have no enemy like our own sex’.
The scenes with the coarse character known simply as ‘The Ward’ and his companion Sordido are the ones that suffer the harvest cuts of all, with Act III scene 3, which takes place between The Ward and Isabella, being lost entirely. The role of the Cardinal is also greatly reduced, and much of the religious background to the drama is stripped away.
Until the closing ten minutes or so, Women Beware Women stands up remarkably well nearly fifty years on. Anchoring the production is a very fine performance by Diana Rigg as Bianca, who handles the turns from demure to brazen, retiring to scheming with great subtlety. Gene Anderson, who was to die unexpectedly later in 1965, is also immensely impressive as Livia. Another of the production’s ‘stars’ is the expansive two-level set designed by Roy Stonehouse, with a courtyard and a reception room in which much of the action takes place. The latter has a checkerboard floor echoing one of the central metaphors of the play.
Director Gordon Flemyng opens proceedings with a bravura tracking shot that reveals the breadth of the set and demonstrates the skill of the camera team. In addition to coaxing strong performances from a number of the actors (although the men do not in general make as great an impression as the women), Flemyng also employs staging in depth to draw out the relationships between characters and to advance the action. In Act III scene 2, for example, at one point Leantio is featured in a foreground close-up while far behind him, and on the upper-level of the set, we see Livia and The Widow. The drama then cuts to Livia giving the first indication of her sexual interest in Leantio.
The problems with the production arrive with the final masque, when the sequence of deaths quickly descends to the risible. The complexity of who is taking revenge on who is part of the problem, but there is also the range of methods of despatch (a poisoned cup, deadly fumes, a trapdoor above a nasty set of spikes) and their coming with great speed one after the other. The production entirely fails to find a strategy and a tone that can deal with this excess. But in this it is far from alone, either in stage productions or in other television adaptations of comparable scenes in Jacobean drama. As such it is indicative of the difficulties of attempting these plays from the early seventeenth century – although other productions in the BFI Southbank season negotiate this problem with greater success than is achieved here.
Our BFI Southbank screening last night went, I think, rather well, as did the discussion afterwards. Dame Diana Rigg said that she was ‘relieved’ that Women Beware Women stood up so well, and she was pleased with the pace at which the production moved. Most people seemed really to have enjoyed and appreciated the drama, and not to have minded too much the occasional infelicities of the production methods of the time. I am going to post some further thoughts later, but in the meantime I and my colleague Amanda Wrigley would be fascinated to hear your reactions and thoughts – do please take a moment to jot down any reflections.
I’m in the curious position of only ever having seen Women Beware Women on the screen – first the OU’s 1979 abbreviated production, and now this. So I think of the play’s performance primarily as a televisual one. It is a play that challenges what television can do. The first four acts are as good as Jacobean drama can get, with finely pointed dialogue, nicely varied and powerful characterisation (particularly the women), and an all too convincing atmosphere of corrupt nature. Then the absurdities of the fifth act hit you, when everyone kills off everyone else, and persuasive realism turns to heightened nonsense. The former is made for TV (as the 1964 production, with its excellent framing and camerawork demonstrated); but is the latter?
I think it should be. TV, as with film, can manage the leap from the realistic to the fantastical – it just needs the right imaginative genius at the helm. The 1979 OU production (from which you showed a clip last night) singularly failed to convince us of the viability of the last act (I recall the earlier acts, albeit heavily abbreviated, as working well enough). The 1964 production came close to getting it right, because we laughed as much at the protagonists as at the absurdity of the set-up – and I do think we are meant to laugh at the scene, at least to a degree. It showed that it might be done, so that one sees in Women Beware Women a challenge to the TV medium – how to make the bizarre scene work. It is not that it is unworkable – that’s a different matter. It’s that it taunts TV with what actually lies within its scope. Film this persuasively, it says, and then you will really have achieved something. Last night’s screening did not achieve the extraordinary – but it showed that to do so would not be impossible.
I thought that the expansive, multi-layered sets and choreographic movement meant that this production worked especially well when blown up to cinema-feature size. The design and direction of this version managed to combine two aspects of the play, chamber drama intensity and world of the court (encapsulated in the shot where the movement of the dancers twirls into a sudden foreground appearance of Derek Newark’s Ward) with an assurance – I’ll be interested to see if this is repeated across the season’s productions.
The extensive cutting was greatly to the productions benefit, I thought, and gave it the great virtue of pace that Diana Rigg spoke of. Even though it did sometimes make fathoming out exactly why everybody’s motives for revenge a bit opaque, I can still find myself thoroughly confused when I see uncut versions of these texts! When reduced to just a few exchanges, the unfunny comic subplots of these plays (the bits that textual scholars always seem to blame on the hapless Rowley) can become surprisingly palatable and enjoyable.
I am searching for a recording of either this version, or the 1980’s BBC version of Women Beware Women. I’m so glad you got to watch it…any hints about how I can get my hands on it as well??
I’m afraid it’s not available in any form, nor is the 1980 recording. You ought to be able to watch the Granada version at the BFI in London, if that’s of any use – contact the BFI Viewings Service for details. You might be interested that Susanne Greenhalgh writes extensively about both versions in a wonderful chapter in our forthcoming edited collection, ‘Screen plays: theatre plays on British television’, to be published in spring 2022 by Manchester University Press.
Thank you very much for these tips! I really appreciate it!