TO BEGIN with she is Little Red Riding Hood, skipping into the forest, seduced by the big bad wolf, the sexual predator who reads her poetry and draws her into the darkness.
This is the story of women betrayed, scorned, or in the background, and of women who stood behind their men. Based on the cycle of poems by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife gives the wonderful Linda Marlowe the chance to impersonate a whole pantheon of female creatures – from the naïve and innocent to the seductive, the ignorant and the downright evil.
Using the subtlest of costume changes – a headscarf here, a pair of pointed glasses there – Marlowe brings us Delilah, the amoral little slut who hacks off her giant boyfriend’s hair. Then Mrs Midas, played as a North London Jewish housewife, banishing her husband to the spare room so he can starve in his golden prison.
Frau Freud, wife of Sigmund, is played for laughs, rattling through an inventory of all the words she knows for penises, while Mrs Quasimodo is a tragic but recognisable character, drowning in jealousy, self-loathing and rage she lashes out at the misshapen man she loves.
Duffy is not afraid to show us the shadow side of womanhood, and Marlowe is more than capable of warping herself into some uncompromising and uncomfortable creatures.
Mrs Beast unveils the dark and sinister spectre of controlling female sexuality, while Mrs Faust is the embodiment of greed, superficiality and unbridled materialism. The Kray sisters are feminists of the most unforgiving and violent kind while Myra Hindley – called the Devil’s Wife – shows how feminine ignorance and guile can make a devastating pact with evil.
This sort of multi-character performance can so easily turn into a self-conscious display of acting virtuosity, but Marlowe never lets her concentration slip; even in the most outrageous caricature she draws deeply on emotions which are recognisable to us all. The combination of her consummate skill and Duffy’s potent words deliver a rich and rollicking ride through the dark and dangerous aspects of womankind.
It is a recipe which leaves the audience with a powerful and unsettling sense of the complexity of the feminine in history, mythology, fairytale and real life.
Until 31 August. Today 1:50pm.