Wednesday 28 March 2012

Theatre Review: The Duchess of Malfi (Old Vic)

Among the wittier touches in Shakespeare in Love (1998) were the scenes featuring the child John Webster. First seen  squatting in a gutter, poking at some mice with a stick, the young Webster later shared his favourite moment in Romeo and Juliet: "I liked it when she stabbed herself."  The comedy of these scenes came from Webster’s status as playwright of the macabre and the gruesome,  a reputation that’s justified by his tragedies The White Devil (1612), and The Duchess of Malfi (1613). The latter gets a flawed-but-interesting new production at the Old Vic, directed by the very-in-demand Jamie Lloyd.

When that other directing Lloyd - Phyllida - staged Webster’s play at the National Theatre nine years ago, it was with a bold modern flourish: a noir-ish 1950s ambience, and the Duchess strapped to a chair and tormented, Clockwork Orange-style, by grisly video images. Not all of it worked but the production certainly had its excitements, as well as great performances from Janet McTeer as the D of M, from Charles Edwards as Antonio, the steward whose clandestine marriage to the Duchess sets the tragedy in motion, and from Eleanor David in the small but pivotal role of the duplicitous Julia. (Note to directors: cast Ms. David in something soon!)

Despite the occasional (feeble) attempt to sex the proceedings up - Iris Roberts’s Julia is introduced here vigorously humping the Cardinal (Finbar Lynch), and there’s a spot of fingering to follow - Jamie Lloyd’s production keeps things traditional, by contrast, in terms of costume and set. With low-key lighting that makes you peer into the gloom and an impressive yet inelegant design by Soutra Gilmour that cramps and crowds the action, the pace is sometimes sluggish, and there are some strange notions. The Duchess’s first  appearance, for example – flanked by flunkies who look like they might be warming up for a turn in a Michael Jackson video – is risible.

Still, the power of the piece comes through. For all the play's odd time shifts and structural wobbles,  Webster’s pungent, poetic language ("Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle") delivers in performance, and by the production’s end I was reminded that this is a play that I'm really rather fond of. And while some of Lloyd’s decisions are questionable others prove rather successful. It’s easy for the mounting body-count to tilt into full-blown absurdity by the climax but the adroit staging of the murders silenced potential sniggerers at Saturday's performance. Painfully prolonged here, the scene in which the Duchess meets her fate is unusually upsetting.

The performances are not all up to scratch yet (and in a couple of cases seem unlikely to ever get there), but some of the actors come through. In particular, as Ferdinand, the Duchess’s incestuously-inclined brother, Harry Lloyd charts the character’s journey from possessiveness to full-tilt lyncanthropic lunacy rather well. Still, once again, it’s Best that’s best, and in the title role The Lady Eve delivers an elegant, involving performance that anchors the production. There’s not a great deal of chemistry between her and Tom Bateman's somewhat colourless Antonio and Best could perhaps bring a trace more sensuality to the role. But there’s no denying her power, both in the quieter moments and the big scenes: from the emphasis of her declaration that “I am Duchess of Malfi, still” to her hushed delivery on the most beautiful, most haunting of last lines. Lloyd’s production fumbles some key elements, and occasionally loses its dramatic pulse. But, making its way to "the ancient truth/That kindred do commonly worse agree than remote strangers,"  it grips and moves at its strongest.

The production is booking until 9th June. Further information at the Old Vic website.

1 comment:

  1. Ha! Thanks, man. Your comment went into Spam, for some reason, and I only just spotted it.