Monday, 2 April 2012

Theatre review: The Duchess of Malfi

The Old Vic's baroque Duchess of Malfi is clearly not going to be the venue for another wedding disco, thus bucking the trend for Jacobean tragedy this year. Of course, the wedding in question being a closely-guarded secret (a secret that somehow survives several years and three children) the chances of the cast doing the "Tragedy" dance were always going to be slim. Instead Jamie Lloyd gives us an epic production of John Webster's best-known work, on Soutra Gilmour's sumptuous set of arches, walkways and candles. The Duchess of Malfi has recently been widowed, and her two brothers advise her not to remarry. Obeying them on the surface, she in fact secretly marries her young steward. When it all finally comes out, her brothers deal with the class-defying relationship in typically bloody fashion.

After last year's Much Ado About Nothing marked her long-awaited return to the stage, we don't have to wait as long again for Eve Best, who as the titular character shows her star quality at every turn. The production takes a while to take off: There's a tendency towards stately, reverential verse-speaking, not helped by the fact that the opening heavily features Tom Bateman and Tunji Kasim, both of whom are very pretty but not quite so interesting as actors. But any cobwebs are banished by Best's first appearance as the vibrant, independent Duchess. She's equally good in the joyous early scenes of her marriage to Antonio (Bateman) and later as her world starts to crumble.

In the recent TV Great Expectations, Harry Lloyd showed he can do "adorable" but he always seems happiest when he's evil, which he goes back to here as the Duchess' reptilian, quasi-incestuous brother Ferdinand. He gets to show another side once he goes insane with guilt, and I suppose he can now technically be counted as another sexy werewolf, since that's the delusion his madness gives him. Finbar Lynch gets to be just as slimy in the role of the other brother, the lascivious Cardinal, while Mark Bonnar gets perhaps the trickiest job as Bosola, who switches sides so often it's hard to keep up and gets his hands bloodier than anyone; but who I got the feeling we were still meant to feel some sympathy for. An almost-impossible task, surely, and not one that Bonnar can quite pull off. There's a good supporting cast as well, with Madeline Appiah notable as the Duchess' maid and confidante, Cariola.

Subtlety is about as alien a word to John Webster as plausibility is, (death by poisoned Bible!) which can make his plays hard to take seriously. Jamie Lloyd wisely opts to embrace any opportunities for humour along the way; so once the bodies (who seem to be in a competition over who can get the last word in before carking it) start piling up the giggles might not be gone entirely, but they're minimal compared to some Webster productions I've seen. Tonight's performance also got a bit of unintentional comedy, as when the Duchess and Antonio climbed onto their marital bed, it promptly broke. They muddled through the lengthy scene that followed though, and fortunately the accident came at quite a light moment so Best's howls of laughter weren't out of character. What with this, a dagger that went sliding across the stage, and Lynch doing the whole play with his arm in a sling (due, I'm told, to another of those bicycle-related accidents that seem to be plaguing actors lately) if were in the cast I'd be getting a bit nervous by now.

Though I enjoyed both this and She Stoops to Conquer, neither have exhibited the frenetic energy that I've always associated with Jamie Lloyd's productions. Although I don't believe in directors sticking to the same thing all the time, I hope this manic pace isn't gone for good as it's always been refreshing. But if not the paciest Jacobean tragedy around, The Duchess of Malfi is still an entertaining evening, largely thanks to its leading lady.

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is booking until the 9th of June at the Old Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

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