Love’s Sacrifice, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

reviewed for The Times, 22 April 2015

Love’s Sacrifice, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Catrin Stewart and Matthew Needham as the doomed Duke and Duchess of Pavy in Love’s Sacrifice, at The Swan, Stratford upon Avon



As a Renaissance scholar, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for John Ford. Ford, who flourished at the early court of Charles I, is now enjoying something of a revival. His blood-soaked The Broken Heart recently finished a run at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and now the RSC has chosen to freshen up the considerably dustier Love’s Sacrifice at Stratford.

If all you know of Ford is his most famous title, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, you will still grasp that he struggled with his feelings towards women. Love’s Sacrifice is littered with distasteful female stereotypes, most notably Beth Cordingly’s scheming Fiormonda, the hot-blooded widow whose sexual frustrations spur her to poison her brother’s marriage. She’s Iago to his Othello, with less eloquence and more heaving bosom.

Yet there’s also a refreshing compassion here for the crushing constraints on married women in Ford’s era and Matthew Dunster’s production for the RSC is at its best when it streamlines the messy subplots and lets Catrin Stewart’s arresting performance as the doomed Duchess Bianca, target of Fiormonda’s jealousy, keep our sympathies gripped.

Bianca is of humble birth — “the sallow-coloured brat of some unlanded bankrupt,” says Fiormonda — so she owes everything to the Duke who made her his consort. She’s determined to be a grateful, dutiful wife until she discovers true passion for the first time in his best friend, Fernando. She’s still resolved to obey her marriage vows, but Fernando has made the mistake of rejecting Fiormonda’s love and it’s only a matter of time before he must suffer her revenge.

In a shrewd bit of casting, Stewart makes for a petite, fragile, but ultimately heroic Bianca, unsubtly clad in white lace against Fiormonda’s black mourning clothes. And Cordingly humanises her villainous role as well as one could hope.

However, there’s still plenty of time wasted on buffoonery — Matthew Kelly gets a few laughs in as an overly optimistic septuagenarian lady’s man (there’s also a widow who’s over the hill at 46) — and a directorial indulgence for tedious masque sequences. It’s all camp fun, but it won’t be for everyone.