Laurence Boswell talks to Terry Grimley about his new production of Thomas Middleton's masterpiece and his admiration for leading lady Penelope Wilton...
Sexual intercourse, according to Philip Larkin, was invented in 1963. And the materialistic society, it often seems to be assumed, dates from some time shortly after the Second World War.
But Thomas Middleton's play Women Beware Women, believed to have been written around 1622, offers a longer historical perspective, having a lot to say about both sex and materialism as well as the often murky relationship between them.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is now reviving the play for the third time, and associate director Laurence Boswell has been finding it a rewarding piece to work on.
" I think it's Middleton's masterpiece," he says. "It's got a very rich history at the RSC.
"It lay unperformed for a long time until Anthony Page revived it [in 1962], and Terry Hands famously revived it after that. So it's a play very dear to the RSC.
"One of its unique things is that it has eight central characters, so it's a very ensemble piece compared to something like The Duchess of Malfi, which has a towering central character.
"It's a very original play in that way. And a lot of the leading roles are women, which is another of its unique qualities. He seemed to have an understanding of female psychology which was one of his special strengths. The women are strong and independent and complex."
It is also a play which has a lot to say about a society in a period of turbulent change.
"Middleton, like Ben Jonson, was the son of a bricklayer who then through his own briliance went off to Oxford and became a leading playwright. He portrays a whole range of characters from the highest to the lowest.
"Society was experiencing a lot of economic change. There were a lot of social changes to do with commerce and money, with the beginnings of our modern economy. People were moving and London was doubling and trebling in size very quickly. It was becoming a very cosmopolitan place.
"Middleton was fascinated by how these shifting economic values affected people personally.
"The play is all about the destruction of two marriages through intense temptation. It's about the corruption of the court and how the court corrupts everyone with its glamour. It also reflects the stirrings of the conflicts that would eventually turn into the Civil War, the people who eventually followed Cromwell and formed the New Model Army."
Boswell says that a key to his production was casting Penelope Wilton in the central role of the conniving Livia.
"We did Long Day's Journey into Night together about nine years ago. I have always been a huge fan of Penelope's and the fact that she wanted to do the part was very important."
Like The Crucible at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Women Beware Women will have the Swan Theatre to itself for a limited run, providing a non-Shakesperean interval before the RSC launches its Complete Works festival in April.
It is hoped that it will then transfer to the West End, which seems to be much more receptive to classic plays these days since the unexpected success of Schiller's Don Carlos.
"The West End is opening up, and we've got two actors in Penelope Wilton and Tim Piggott-Smith that people have heard of" says Boswell.
The writer-director of the RSC's Christmas hit Beauty and the Beast plans to be wearing his writer hat for much of the summer.
A film version of Cyrano de Bergerac is still in the pipeline and he is also planning a follow-up to Beauty and the Beast.
"I wrote Beauty and the Beast years ago when my daughter was young and I've got a boy who's eight.
"I did one for his sister so I've got to do one for him. That's one of the things I'll be writing over the summer.
"Writing is something I plan to do at least half the year. As you get older you want a new challenge."
A former artistic director of the Gate Theatre in London, one challenge he has no interest in taking up is running another theatre.
"I like to spend my time with creative challenges, and when I ran the Gate I spent most of my time fundraising.
"Being at home and being a dad are things I find rewarding, and if you run a building you become something of a stranger to your children.
"I like the independent life and I like mixing things up."
* Women Beware Women is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until April 1 (Box office: 0870 609 1110). Cheek by Jowl brings its production of Thomas Middleton's The Changeling to Warwick Arts Centre from May 3-6 (Box office: 024 7652 4524).