Cheek by Jowl's Jacobean tragedy is reminiscent of 20th-century film noir, as Heather Neill reports
Cheek by Jowl's director, Declan Donnellan, has been working on this Jacobean tragedy and Twelfth Night simultaneously, and has been delighted to find many parallels between them, especially the strong link between love and madness.
Beatrice-Joanna, betrothed to Alonzo, falls in love at first sight with Alsemero and he with her. She charges de Flores, a servant she professes to find physically disgusting, to murder Alonzo, not realising that he in turn is obsessed with her. He demands sexual favours in return.
A wedding is arranged with Alsemero, but to ensure that the groom doesn't discover the loss of her virginity, Beatrice-Joanna sends her maid Diaphanta to him under cover of darkness. She is murdered by de Flores. The tale ends with the death of the now mutually obsessed lovers.
Meanwhile, jealous old Alibius, who runs a madhouse, keeps his young wife Isabella under lock and key. Antonio and Franciscus, both servants of Beatrice-Joanna's father, feign madness in an attempt to seduce her and are suspected of being murderers in hiding. The two plots converge in the final scenes.
The comic mad scenes have caused embarrassment for some modern directors.
Donnellan says: "You can remove the mad scenes - the plots are not interwoven in a profound way - but you lose so much. Love and madness have a connection. We think of the connection between mental health and sex as a 19th-century discovery, but when people ask me if the play is Freudian, I say, no, it's trying to describe what is true."
If Alibius is clearly more foolish than some of his charges, Beatrice-Joanna and de Flores are, in a sense, really mad. "Yes, this is implied by association. The text is clotted with the idea of an upwelling of the inner will that destabilises a human being."
Besides, Donnellan thinks that attitudes to madness were not quite as straightforward as we tend to think: "There was a clear distinction between mental disability (fools) and mental illness (madmen) and Alibius seems to hope for greater humanity in future."
A "changeling" meant a fool. Antonio is the changeling, but changeability (and substitution) is a theme. "There is a lot of emphasis on the idea that change happens to human beings, but they can't change themselves."
Beatrice-Joanna's changes of allegiance and her murderous behaviour remind Donnellan of film noir such as Double Indemnity. "Women are not sentimentalised, nor are they damned."
Donnellan says: "You can look at such events in a sensationalist way, at a distance, but in a great play like this you understand what it is like to do terrible things. Beatrice-Joanna orders a sanitised murder. When de Flores shows her Alonzo's finger, the gruesomeness is useful. Like Lady Macbeth she realises that what's done cannot be undone and she is reduced to an animal level, caught in a corner."