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A CurtainUp London Review
The Duchess of Malfi
by Lizzie Loveridge
The omens were excellent for Gale Edward's production of John Webster's gory tale of good and evil, The Duchess of Malfi. Last year we had an intense production of Don Carlos and back in 1996, a wonderful showing of The White Devil, also by Webster, both at the Pit for the RSC and directed by Edwards. However as I handed over my coat at the cloakroom to a man who said that I was going to see an excellent comedy, I smelt a rat. I was a teenager when I last saw the Duchess on stage. In my impressionable youth, I was deeply affected by the duchess' predicament in having two of the nastiest siblings in all literature. That of course was decades ago, before the genre of movies by Quentin Tarantino, so I suppose we cannot expect today's teenagers to be so affected.
The story which has a basis in fact, is of a widowed duchess (Aisling O'Sullivan) whose brothers, Duke Ferdinand (Colin Tierney) and the Cardinal (Ken Bones), forbid her to remarry. She falls in love with her steward, Antonio (Richard Lintern) and is secretly married to him. She has three children by him. Bosola (Tom Mannion), an ex galley slave, is set to spy on her, learns her secret and tells his employers, her brothers. She and Antonio split up for safety. The duchess is then subjected to terrible psychological torture as her brothers show her the (supposed) corpse of her husband. Finally, she and two of her children are strangled. Duke Ferdinand starts to go mad. Bosola, remorseful at the Duchess' death, induces Julia (Caroline Loncq), the Cardinal's mistress to get a confession out of him. Bosola stabs to death Antonio, thinking that he is the Duke. The Cardinal and the Duke are killed by Bosola and he is fatally wounded but confesses all. The duchess' son by Antonio inherits the title.
Aisling O'Sullivan's tall, red haired Duchess enunciates well in a deep and imperious voice, but for me did not make the sensual connection with either Antonio or her incestuous twin brother Ferdinand. Richard Lintern is a fine mannered Antonio but does not convey that he is from a lower class than that of his wife. Ken Bones' Cardinal is delightfully repulsive, the most memorable scene of the play when he takes his mistress against a huge sloping crucifix. Colin Tierney as Ferdinand has a camp air about him from the very beginning which detracts from both his nastiness and the incestuous overtones but he goes mad very nicely. Tom Mannion took over the role of Bosola a few weeks ago after illness struck the original actor. Mannion's west coast Scots accent sounds at points like Billy Connolly, a regional accent supposing him to be lower class. The opening night was delayed ten days by the substitution. The performances were not helped the night I saw them by the audience of schoolgirls who were greatly amused rather than horrified.
The set too probably does not help the actors. A glass tower with balloons opens the play, a cage for the Duchess. A terracotta red background features classical pillars and grey scaffolding. Still, there is much that is visually memorable about the production: the cathedral, the umbrellas in the rain as the Duchess says goodbye to her son and Antonio, the wax work abattoir with a human body and the lunatic asylum. The dress is modern, almost post modern. Some scenes are futuristic as the soldiers in black leather coats and face helmets look like extras from The Terminator films. The music is like film music and overly dramatic.
The Duchess of Malfi may become a rare theatrical event as it is so difficult to convince today's audience of its horror without sending it up or presenting it as melodrama. This would be a shame as Webster's poetry is rich and full bodied.