The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster Old Vic Theatre, London, directed by Jamie Lloyd, 28 April 2012
Reviewed by Peter Malin
References to the play are to John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, ed. by John Russell Brown, Revels Student Editions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)
What an unexpected pleasure to see a Jacobean tragedy set in its own period and played with genuine respect for the text. Soutra Gilmour’s beautiful, elegant designs for Jamie Lloyd’s production placed the drama in a glowing Renaissance palace of angled gold columns and high windows, reminiscent of a cathedral interior. Ornate, fretworked galleries, stairs and walkways added height and mystery to the acting space. James Farncombe’s atmospheric lighting, enhanced by candles and smoke, together with Ben and Max Ringham’s doom-laden music and sound score, created a stifling sense of enclosure and foreboding. At the opening of the play, dark figures, hooded and masked, filled the space with stylised movement and sinister whisperings. Some of these were subsequently revealed as the drama’s leading characters, dressed for the courtly revels that mark the end of Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s state visit. Throughout the action, similarly dark-robed figures passed across the walkways or loitered in the shadows, suggesting a society under constant surveillance. The emblematic first appearance of the Duchess, perhaps taking its cue from Antonio’s line, “She stains the time past, lights the time to come” (1.1.209), had her entering through the rear doors silhouetted against a blaze of white light, an effect repeated twice at key moments of her story but with increasing layers of both irony and pity as her moral status became more ambiguous and her treatment by her brothers more cruel.
Essentially, the setting functioned as an elaborate extrapolation of a typical Jacobean playhouse. The central columns enclosed a discovery space, below the mid-stage gallery, with curtains that could be drawn to create a sense of domestic intimacy for the Duchess’s early scenes with Antonio, or of enclosure for her incarceration. The use of the stage was, one imagines, much as it would have been at the Blackfriars or Globe. The drawing aside of the curtains to reveal the waxwork bodies of Antonio and his son, hanging side by side, proved especially effective. A particular frisson was achieved through the difficulty of deciding whether the bodies were indeed artificial, or whether they were represented by the actors of the roles. Academic speculation about the original staging of this key moment generally assumes that the audience would be able to tell the difference; the uncertainty here somehow increased the dramatic tension.
While suggesting a Jacobean performance space, Gilmour’s design also melded seamlessly with the architecture of the Old Vic’s splendid auditorium, so that the gilded curves of dress circle and upper circle found a visual continuation in the golden galleries of the set. Thus, despite the theatre’s proscenium format, there was a powerful sense of audience and actors sharing a room, inhabiting the same, disturbing world. And it was, recognisably, our world. Despite the magnificent Jacobean costumes, with the Duchess in dresses and shifts of shimmering cream or virginal white, singled out visually from the richer and darker hues surrounding her, the characters existed in an entirely recognisable context of political and moral corruption. As Christopher Hart pointed out, “such is the moral progress of mankind – absolute zero – that we are reminded of the world around us at every horror-stricken step”. Contemporary relevance, as this production made clear, does not have to be communicated by patronising the audience with 21st-century accoutrements.
The costumes had been created with meticulous attention to detail. Finbar Lynch, suffering from an arm injury sustained shortly before the production opened, was provided with an impressive sling in his role as the Cardinal that seemed part and parcel of his interpretation of the role. It effectively emphasised the extent of his studied restraint and deliberate self-control, already evident in his chilling, icy delivery: “I can be angry | Without this rupture” (2.5.55). The injured arm was no bar to his vigorous sexual activity with Iris Roberts’s volatile Julia in 2.4, and indeed added to the scene’s cynical comedy. Yet the Cardinal’s physical infirmity also increased his vulnerability at the play’s denouement, as he contemplated his impending doom:
When I look into the fishponds, in my garden,
Methinks I see a thing, armed with a rake,
That seems to strike at me. (5.5.5-7)
Lloyd’s production presented a cut text, with minor but significant transpositions, particularly at the start. After the initial, stylised dance of death by the play’s silent chorus of cowled figures, the play proper began with the voice of Bosola, “I do haunt you still” (1.1.29), establishing him as arguably the drama’s central character. In Mark Bonnar’s charismatic, muscular performance, he deserved this status. His rugged, strongly emphasised Scottish accent placed him immediately as an outsider in this courtly environment, and his cynical reflections on hypocrisy, corruption, ambition, human frailty and mortality were delivered with a heartfelt sense of bitterness, thwarted desert and self-loathing. The unexpected twists and turns of his moral compass were gripping and persuasive, making him a complex and ambiguous figure, more believably human than any of the other characters except the Duchess herself, as Webster surely intended. Vocally, perhaps, Bonnar could have done with more light and shade in his delivery, but he remained a compelling presence from beginning to end, meeting his death “[i]n a mist” (5.5.94) partly of his own making. It was an enormous pity that his bellman’s dirge (4.2.177-94), with its beautiful, melancholy poetry, was here reduced to just its final couplet.
The text’s actual opening, Antonio’s dialogue with Delio in which he eulogises the French king’s grasp of good government, was not cut but delayed. As usual it felt odd that, despite his long absence in France, it is Antonio who possesses detailed knowledge of the Duchess and her brothers which he is required to impart to Delio, who has, we assume, been based in Malfi all the time. Presumably, Webster is keen to establish Antonio as an astute political observer with a sense of the moral imperatives of rule. Equally, the playwright takes some trouble to present Antonio as a man of action, victor of the pre-play tournament that has formed part of the “sportive action” (1.1.91) and “chargeable revels” (1.1.333) of which Ferdinand complains. Silvio reports that Antonio “took the ring oftenest” (1.1.87), but it is always difficult to get this across to an audience, short of opening the play with the hero in full jousting triumph. The references to his sporting victory were cut from the production, yet they are important in establishing Antonio’s “manly” credentials, since in the play itself he is almost entirely passive and, according to the gender politics of the time, feminised. He persistently responds to events rather than initiating them, ultimately suffering an ignominious death as a result of mistaken identity. Fortunately, Antonio was played here by Tom Bateman with real strength and charisma, arousing none of the usual doubts about what the Duchess could possibly see in him.
For her part, Eve Best’s Duchess was a spirited, vivacious, open-hearted, naïve, irresponsible, sensual woman, long out of mourning for her late husband, who seemed temperamentally ill-suited to the society she inhabits, let alone to the responsibilities of governing her people. A sympathetic but flawed figure, she clearly inspired love, affection and respect in those around her, notably her waiting-woman Cariola, played with a touching humanity and sensitivity at this performance by Lucy Eaton, standing in for Madeline Appiah. Cariola’s hysterical terror in the face of death is structured by Webster as a deliberate contrast to her mistress’s calm dignity, but here it only made her seem more convincingly human, arousing our horrified sympathy rather than contempt for her cowardly efforts to talk, bite and scratch her way out of her fate. Both deaths, the Duchess’s extended well beyond the bounds of dramatic decorum, generated a profound sense of the pity and terror demanded by conventional notions of tragedy.
Terror was, as usual, mingled with a hefty dose of the ludicrous in Harry Lloyd’s portrayal of Ferdinand. A psychopathic obsessive who disintegrates into delusional fantasies, Ferdinand’s role is surely to make our flesh creep. This production made no bones about his incestuous desire for the Duchess, which was obvious from the start – even though neither of them quite knew it until his incursion into her bedchamber. Here, in a brilliantly staged moment, Ferdinand mounted the bed on top of his sister, bearing down on her until, in an instant of horrified epiphany, both of them realised exactly what this meant. Like much of the production, this scene played to an audience gripped in an intensely attentive silence: not a cough, not a rustle of programmes, barely even a breath.
With a running time of about 2 hours 40 minutes, much had been cut from the play, though it would hardly have been evident, I imagine, to most of the audience. Webster takes some pains to place the story in a context of permanent readiness for military action against some unspecified enemy, with the Cardinal’s “turn[ing] soldier” (3.3.1) enacted in an elaborate dumbshow (3.4) that was omitted in this production, along with its choric Pilgrims. The military context is developed, too, in discussions of the proposed “new fortification | At Naples” (3.3.7) and the references to the military camp, or “leaguer” in Milan to which Silvio is heading at the start of the play (1.1.219-23). Few productions develop this context, with the result, as here, that the subsidiary characters – Silvio, Pescara, Malateste – lose their narrative significance and become merely anonymous lords.
Among other omissions, all of them disappointing for a variety of reasons, were Bosola’s two dialogues with the Old Lady (2.1.24-47, 2.2.4-28), thus losing some of his most entertainingly grotesque wit; the full text of the “child’s nativity”, with its promise of a “short life” and “violent death” for Antonio’s son (2.4.53-64); the details of Delio’s dubious relationship with Julia (2.4.46-77), which serves to undermine the apparent moral probity of Antonio’s trusted friend; the Pilgrims’ humane and sympathetic observations on the plight of Antonio and the Duchess, with their clear-sighted criticisms of both the Cardinal’s cruelty and papal hypocrisy (3.4.24-44); and the entire madmen’s masque (4.2.45-114), reduced here to a few offstage bursts of lunatic laughter. While these omissions led to an increase in pace, intensity and uniformity of tone, they inevitably damaged the play’s breadth and complexity, its ambiguity, its incursions of grim comedy, and its sheer spectacle. All this was a pity.
Mostly, however, this was a production that did Webster’s masterpiece full justice. One feature of the text that can provoke critical unease and puzzlement in those more familiar with Shakespearean dramaturgy is the use of frequent moral exemplars, either in the form of brief sententiae, often crystallised in rhyming couplets; or of extended allegorical narratives, notably Ferdinand’s discourse on Reputation (3.2.119-35) and the Duchess’s fable of the salmon and the dogfish (3.5.123-41). Both techniques were entirely vindicated by their delivery in Lloyd’s production. The sententiae became vocalisations of an urgent human need to make some kind of moral sense of the “shadow, or deep pit of darkness” (5.5.101) in which the characters flounder, desperately searching for meaning amidst the “general mist of error” (4.2.187) that clouds their existence. They were spoken strongly, affirmatively, as nuggets of hard-earned wisdom – whether cynical, pessimistic or consoling – to cling to on life’s difficult journey. The two allegories, instead of seeming like clumsily artificial interpolations into the dialogue, were played as genuine attempts by Ferdinand and the Duchess to communicate their most deeply-held beliefs. Delivered with passion and intensity by Eve Best, the Duchess’s fable also managed to be surprisingly moving.
The speaking throughout the production was clear and intelligent, though the lack of modulation already noted in Mark Bonnar’s delivery was a more general weakness, especially in the difficult final act. There was also some over-projection, which particularly marred the beautiful, touching delicacy of the snow-sprinkled echo scene. It is perhaps worth reporting an overheard comment from the row behind me, noting the lack of subtlety in the performances and comparing this unfavourably with the Peggy Ashcroft Duchess – presumably Donald McWhinnie’s 1960-61 RSC production rather than George Rylands’s staging at the Haymarket in 1945. Subtlety is not often considered as a feature of Jacobean tragedy – one of many irritating misrepresentations of the genre. This production was subtle where it needed to be, melodramatic where the text demanded it, lucid in its story-telling, precise in its handling of Webster’s startling language and powerfully moving in its delineation of human suffering. The Duchess of Malfi is a play commonly studied at A Level and it was encouraging to see a fair proportion of young people in the audience, who will surely have been encouraged by this production to reassess the usual revenge-tragedy stereotypes so often fed to unwary students.
 I have since been told that the waxworks were, in fact, represented by the actors.
 Christopher Hart, “Hello, Cruel World”, Sunday Times, “Culture”, 1 April 2012, p. 25.
 The sling was designed by Soutra Gilmour and created by the Costume Supervisor, Anna Josephs.
 In Phyllida Lloyd’s 2003 National Theatre production, the two opening speeches were switched between Delio and Antonio, so that it was Delio who had been absent in France. While this made more narrative sense, it diminished Antonio’s status at the start of the play.
 Approximately 40 minutes were apparently lopped off the running time during the later stages of rehearsals.