I booked to see The Duchess of Malfi at The Old Vic because Eve Best is in the title role and the production is worth seeing for that alone. She is wonderful, building her character from playful coquettishness with her steward, Antonio at the beginning of the play, to a quiet and intensely moving dignity when she faces death towards the end. Not quite the end, however, as one of the pitfalls of this long and rather gruesome play, is that she is killed off before the fourth act. Following her strangulation (I had no idea strangling someone could take so long) the play descends into what can only be described as an over the top bloodbath. Compassion for the newly departed Duchess is swamped by stifled laughter as one by one the cast is murdered.
The fault lies not in the Old Vic’s production but the play itself. John Webster’s plot is centred around the fact that The Duchess’s two brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria and his corrupt brother, the Cardinal, are determined their newly widowed sister should now remain chaste. Their ‘mole’, Bosola, discovers she has fallen in love and married her steward, Antonio, bearing him three children, so the brothers have her and her two youngest offspring murdered. More deaths follow until basically only her eldest son and Antonio’s faithful friend, Delio, survive. A happy little tale not really helped by some of Webster’s language which, at times, is very difficult to understand.
Soutra Gilmour’s fantastic towering design of a dark and eerie palace and James Farncombe’s perfect atmospheric flickering lighting cannot be faulted, whilst director, Jamie Lloyd’s masterful touch of masking the characters and giving them choreographed movements suggesting a dance of death, is a wonderful piece of theatre. There is also much to admire in some of the other performances. Harry Lloyd captures the menace, unpredictability and incestuous nature of the deranged brother, Ferdinand, to perfection, whilst Finbar Lynch’s portrayal of the older brother, the sexually corrupt Cardinal, is chilling. I’m a sucker for a Scottish accent, so very much enjoyed Mark Bonnar’s Bosola, even though he does somewhat overdo the shouting. Despite that, he conveys the man’s growing conscience, culminating in his revolt against his masters, very well indeed.
I really don’t think John Webster’s ‘best’ play can be produced any better than this offering at The Old Vic.