The Duchess of Malfi, when done well, is in my opinion one of the best plays of them all. Having key ingredients of love and tragedy, it opens doors on eternal debate, questioning the motive and passion of the main players; arguments regarding male dominance and the role of women in society go on, incest remains taboo and sexual erring of clergymen continues to haunt. The emphasis of this production centres on Bosola, who, having returned from penal servitude for murder, is sent by Ferdinand to spy on the widowed Duchess under the guise of being her equestrian provisor. The corruptly sinful Cardinal and demented Ferdinand are brothers of the Duchess, the latter her twin, and there is a hint of an incestuous nature between the siblings. They selfishly plot to prevent her from marrying in an effort to preserve their inheritance, but she is defiant and secretly weds steward Antonio, bearing him three children. The brothers exact their cruel and callous revenge to shocking and devastating consequence.
Set in the Italian court of Malfi during the first decade of the sixteenth century, the Jacobean drama, loosely based on true events, was written by Englishman John Webster one hundred years later and performed to its first regular audience at the Globe Theatre shortly afterwards, falling in and out of fashion ever since. I have only seen two prior productions, Stage on Screen at Greenwich Theatre in 2010 and ENO/Punchdrunk’s promenade the same year. The first, I viewed merely in preparation for the second. I was stunned by the sheer power of this play at Greenwich, only to be subsequently disappointed by the latter.
An eerie atmosphere descends over the Old Vic during the opening scene. Druid-like figures, bearing candelabra in the darkness, provide a guard of honour as we are introduced to the primary male characters. Bosola (Mark Bonnar), whose ‘corruption grew out of horse dung’ is soon reluctantly engaged by the unhinged Ferdinand (Harry Lloyd) to become his illicit agent. The lustful Cardinal, played by Finbar Lynch, imposingly dressed in red. A dramatic blinding avenue of white light emphasising the Duchess’ pureness, spectacularly heralds the arrival of Eve Best in the title role. Each drops their mask in a sign of strength and confidence, whereas they are in fact revealing their inner weaknesses. I must admit, it took me a while to adjust to Webster’s distinguished poetic language, but the effort is worth investing.
Tom Bateman gives the virile Antonio a charming depth of passion, his dashing looks soon finding the Duchess’ attention. A secret wedding, arranged in haste and without ceremony, is witnessed only by her maid and confidant Cariola, who some nine months later also becomes her midwife. Apricots, it seems, were believed to induce labour; a tactic employed by the suspicious Bosola who sends word back to her brothers. Beds are a favoured prop in this production, wheeled on and off stage with various occupants at an alarming rate. There are many visual shocks; seeing a fully dressed cardinal vigorously astride his mistress is arguably amongst the most horrific! Antonio meanwhile proves equally astonishing, providing two further offspring with remarkable speed as the family exile in Ancona before he and the eldest son flee to Milan.
The real drama begins as the brothers execute their spiteful revenge. An impressively elaborate multi-levelled design of steps, bridges and platforms caters perfectly for the most famous Malfi scene, which director Jamie Lloyd superbly stages to great effect in this production. Harry Lloyd gives a masterly portrayal as he returns to the Duchess in the dead of night, tormenting her witlessly after deceptively gaining his sister’s confidence. What follows is one of the most gruesomely haunting theatrical sights as Borsola reveals the brothers’ horrific deeds. Shock is heightened at the devilish sight of Ferdinand looking down on the fearfully pained Duchess from the back of the stage, hovering on high in viscious provocation.
With prospects bleak, Eve Best takes her portrayal of the ruined Duchess to an even greater level. She wrings every ounce of performance in the tense, gory action that follows, hard to describe further without spoiling the plot, but her display of writhing yet graceful agony as her character prepares to meet her fate is remarkable.
The deaths of many occur in quick succession, some more believable than others and a fault of the author that each is given a speech to deliver using their last breaths. This was the only part of the macabre tale that I found unconvincing, with a small sub-set of the cast over playing the drama. Mark Bonnar shines in this awesomely dark and violent tale though, with Bosola’s realisation of remorse, having had a hand in all the killings only to be betrayed by his malicious master.
Written some four hundred years ago but retaining much relevance today, the Old Vic’s Duchess Of Malfi is a bloody nightmare, superbly executed.
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By Gareth Richardson @BargainTheatre
Previews until 27th March
17th March - 9th June 2012
The Old Vic, London, SE1.