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A CurtainUp London Review
The Duchess of Malfi
by Lizzie Loveridge
The Duchess of Malfi, unlike Diana Spencer, gets no support from her brothers, one is a psychopath, the other a controlling and very freaky Cardinal, here mysteriously underplayed by Ray Stevenson. This production makes clear the Catholic Church's conspiracy in killing the Duchess and her family in a modern era of Catholic Church denial and cover up of the sexual abuse of children by priests. Now, can we all see the contemporary relevance of John Webster's early seventeenth century play about the true life Italian duchess?
In the film Shakespeare in Love John Webster is the gruesome little boy who finds Shakespeare's plays not blood thirsty enough. (No letters please claiming it was really Thomas Dekker!) In Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, the body count, as impressive as a quiet night in Bogota, is five fatal stabbings, four strangulations, two of them young children, and one poisoning with an envenomed Bible. As if violence were not enough, Webster adds sex in all its lustful lasciviousness: the duchess's desire for her steward Antonio (Charles Edwards), Ferdinand's incestuous obsession with his sister and the adulterous woman, Julia (Eleanor David) who is the mistress of a supposed celibate, the Cardinal.
In design and direction, this Duchess uses some innovative and highly effective ideas but some of the performances are a let down. The opening scene sees the duchess presenting a cup for some kind of sporting achievement. The cast are assembled on some staged steps, a sliding glass screen used both to highlight the characters as they are introduced, and to play close up film footage as they are discussed. Behind Will Keen's Duke Ferdinand is a collection of agreeing, flattering sycophants whose insincere laughter reverberates around the court. I did think is this The Sopranos meets The Duchess of Malfi? The prison scene is played in complete darkness, just their voices, highly effective and all the more dreadful when the lights go up to expose the hanging bodies of the duchess's lover and elder son. In a very powerful scene where the duchess is kept with lunatics, she is strapped in a chair while screams are howls are heard, frightful images are projected of blood and torture and children flying like one's worst nightmare. The company behind frantically brush at their clothes and faces as if obsessively trying to push away invisible attackers. Played through with no interval increases the intensity of pain, if nowhere else, on one's own derrière.
I liked Janet McTeer's fresh and natural duchess even if this clean cut image interferes with Webster's lines where she lusts after her steward, Antonio. I believe that I have seen Will Keen's performance as the crazed Ferdinand before, but he is very intense, indeed he makes up in twitchy insanity what he lacks in stature. I was disappointed with the lacklustre Cardinal (Ray Stevenson), as tall as he is benign, who should be one of the most evil villains of all drama. Charles Edwards too failed to stir my loins as the object of the duchess's lust. Lorcan Cranath's spy and ultimate convert to the duchess's cause, Bosola, displays his native cunning to penetrate the duchess's inner circle in this interesting role encompassing depravity and redemption. There is excellent support from Eleanor David as the Cardinal's two timing mistress and Sally Rogers as Cariola, the duchess's loyal maid.
The costume is modern dress. At one point almost all the cast wear clerical collars to emphasise the conspiracy of the priests. I liked the guards in their darkly sinister riot gear. The textual references to a horse are illustrated with a set of car keys. The glass screen acts as both a mirror to reflect the action and as a screen to enable the audience to see what is concealed behind it. Mark Henderson's lighting emphasises a gloomily, corrupt Calabria.
I shall remember this production for its interesting ideas and modern relevance, but given ideal casting, it could have been magnificent.
To read to Curtain Up review of the RSC production of The Duchess of Malfi go here
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