In my previous post I wrote about the 1965 adaptation of Thomas Middleton’s early modern drama Women Beware Women. The only other British television production of the play to date is one made by The Open University in 1980, and it is this that I want to discuss here.
My colleague Amanda Wrigley has posted on several occasions about adaptations of theatre plays made for The Open University as part of the A307: Drama course, including ‘Greek plays: Oedipus the King‘, ‘A307 Drama: Macbeth‘ and ‘A307 Drama: The Balcony … banned!‘. But the 1980 Women Beware Women was produced in another context, as part of the course A203: Seventeenth Century England: A Changing Culture, 1618-1689. And an opening title to the recording is explicit about the intent of the inclusion of Middleton’s drama; it reads, ‘An insight into seventeenth century society’.
In the recording transmitted on BBC2 for several years from 1981 onwards, the drama is preceded by a short introduction from Arnold Kettle, Professor of Literature at The Open University, and followed by a ten-minute discussion between Kettle and the renowned historian Christopher Hill, Course Team Chairman for A203. Although ‘discussion’ is perhaps too generous a description, since Kettle asks some questions of Hill which he answers with great confidence in a direct address to the camera.
In his introduction, Arnold Kettle acknowledges that the drama has been ‘shortened’ (it lasts a little less than an hour, whereas stage productions conventionally stretch across at least two and a half hours). He also reassures the audience at the same time as directing them as to how they might approach the drama:
We don’t suggest that you should pretend to be a member of a seventeenth century audience, any more than a television producer could pretend that he was in a theatre of the time of the Stuarts. So don’t approach Middleton’s play as though it was some kind of museum piece. Just take it in, respond to it, and think about it as unacademically as you like.
When the drama begins, it is clear that we are in a very different world from that of the 1965 production. There is no opening caption here to tell us we are in Florence, and indeed the costumes and minimal, stylised settings (by designer Colin Bowles) are strongly suggestive of the London of James I. Produced by one of the drama directors who also worked on A307, Nick Levinson, the recording is in colour, but the studio space in which he is working is far more cramped than that of the 1965 adaptation.
The camerawork is largely static, with an extensive use of close-up and with none of the fluidity of the earlier piece. There are also few opportunities here for stagings which make creative use of depth within the frame, although the Cardinal makes his first appearance far back in a shot but literally between the Duke and Bianca as they part from an embrace that the Church would regard as illicit.
The language is close to Middleton’s original, with none of the updating that Philip Mackie brought to the 1965 adaptation. Also, rather than a filleting of the text throughout, this production plays fuller versions of fewer scenes. Although exchanges between Isabella and The Ward are included, with latter played as an effete rather than memorably vulgar figure, the story of Isabella’s incestuous relationship with Hippolito is excised entirely. The Cardinal is a prominent here than in the Granada version and the religious concerns of the drama are brought out more strongly.
The visual austerity of this production complements its clarity of plotting and helps impart an immediacy to the drama that is different from the impact of the comparatively more lavish 1965 production. There are also a number of distinguished performances, including from Rosemary McHale as Livia, Giselle Wolf as Bianca and Bernard Lloyd’s Duke. Particularly notable in the production is the extensive use of direct address to the camera, used by characters both for sections of the text indicated as ‘asides’ and also for certain of the soliloquies. The effect is to create an intimacy with the viewer and to draw her into a complicit embrace with the character, however venal may the ideas being expressed.
The production, however, is even less effective at handling the events of the Act V masque than is the earlier version. Here the paucity of resources really tells, and there is an unproductive absurdity about the final five minutes or so. But in relation to this, do read Luke McKernan’s comment on the post about the 1965 Women Beware Women where he suggests that
The 196 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 [at BFI Southbank of the 1965 production] did not achieve the extraordinary – but it showed that to do so would not be impossible.
In the discussion that follows the drama, Christopher Hill offers a revealing gloss on the concerns of the play and makes the point that the masque can be seen as mocking the elaborate court entertainments that were known to be favoured by King James and his courtiers. ‘It may be expressing’, Hill argues, ‘deeply felt city and patrician criticisms of the court and its ways.’ He also details the ways in which the drama would have been related to the concerns of its original audiences around 1621:
I don’t think we’re imagining things when we feel that Middleton’s play contains a pertinent criticism of some contemporary attitudes to marriage. A new middle-class ideal of marriage as a partnership, founded on love, was challenging the traditional aristocratic code of property marriage plus philandering for men only.
By way of conclusion, Arnold Kettle also contributes a reflection about the play’s morality, when he says,
It’s a highly moral play, not in the sense of being crudely moralistic, but in delving into and illuminating moral problems.
Together with the spare but revealing adaptation, the thoughts of these two distinguished academics make a strong case for the value of approaching ideas about seventeenth-century England through Thomas Middleton’s achievement in this play.
All images are screen grabs from a recording of Women Beware Women © The Open University, 1980.