Thomas Middleton’s revenge drama about patriarchy, predation and the manipulation of young women seems like a perfect play for our #MeToo era. So it is entirely fitting that Amy Hodge’s show takes place in contemporary dress and on a set that looks like an opulent hotel lobby carrying queasy associations with Harvey Weinstein, though Hodge says it is a nod to 1980s America and Trump Tower.
The Jacobean tragedy has strains of unsettling humour alongside its darkness and this production pushes the comedy so that it veers close to farce. It is an entertaining and original way of reimagining the play, but ultimately it leeches the drama of its intensity and serious themes feel undercut by archness and playfulness. Tara Fitzgerald plays Livia more as a comical minx than a woman who both controls and destroys lives. Her romantic fixation with Leantio is played with humour so we do not feel an authenticity in her passion, nor in her sorrow when he is slain.
Female actors take male roles including the Ward (Helen Cripps), Guardiano (Gloria Onitiri) and the Cardinal (Stephanie Jacob) but this gender reversal does not bring much with it. Some actors lack conviction or seem wobbly in their parts, although Thalissa Teixeira’s performance as Bianca stands out for its depth and drama.
It feels desperately over-stylised by the end. The central game of chess is artfully enacted by actors on different corners of the stage but other moments feel self-consciously kooky. The original script has been trimmed by a third and Hodge has added song and dance to underline the play’s theatricality but it feels like style over substance, and the stage is so busy with movement that it is in ceaseless churn, especially in the first half, with few moments of dramatic stillness.
Musicians on the top level of Joanna Scotcher’s mezzanine set play ambient jazz as the action takes place below but this seems at odds with the highly-strung mood of Middleton’s play. A couple of scenes are powerful: Bianca’s rape is enacted through music and choreographed movement; two men’s examination of Isabella under her skirt – a 17th-century version of upskirting – is another sleazy moment.
Middleton’s pile-up of dead bodies at the end is made even more baroque, with an extravaganza involving a shirtless Cupid in a gold skirt, an aerial swing and a trio of Grecian goddesses. It is bold, bizarre, excessive and encapsulates the spirit of the production.
• Women Beware Women is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, from 29 February to 18 April.