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Review: The Duchess of Malfi (Old Vic)


The Duchess of Malfi
Old Vic, London SE1
There may be no more touching portrayal of heroism on the British stage right now than Eve Best’s death scene in The Duchess of Malfi. About to be murdered by an agent of her own brothers, apparently handed the severed arm of her husband and then forced to see him and one of her children hanging from a scaffold, the duchess’s last task is to keep hold of her sanity.
Perceptively (for it is not her mate’s hand and the strung-up bodies are effigies), Malfi accounts “this world a tedious theatre”, in which she has been forced to play a part. The next world, peopled by friends, is not to be feared, nor is strangulation – after all, would it be any better to be shot with pearls? Her final thought is for her surviving children: she tells her servant to give her boy syrup for his cold and help her daughter with her prayers. And then she is killed.
I wasn’t counting, but the double-action rope trick must have taken at least half a minute. Best’s desperate mime of asphixiation, her arms’ violent flapping before they finally, pathetically, sought rest on those of her killers, was as shocking as her former quiet stoicism. Death was, after all, to be feared.
Best is one of my favourite actors – her Hedda Gabler was remarkable – and here she reminded me why. In truth, however, I had not been entirely won over by her duchess until this fourth act. Her reading of Webster’s Jacobean verse was always clear and intelligent, sometimes beautiful, but until near the end it still seemed like a reading and Best, at her best, can go beyond a script, deep into naturalism.
My cavils about this production should, I suspect, be directed at her director, Jamie Lloyd, who has sought to find a morality tale in Webster’s decadent revenge drama – and may have found one. Unlike most directors of this play, he gives the impression of being as interested in the playwright’s moral platitudes (“The weakest arm is strong enough that strikes with the sword of justice”) as what Webster is famous for, which is his language’s baroque grotesquery: caterpillars that feed on crooked plum trees, the face that engenders toads, the pestilent air of palaces.
The result is that we have here the least camp, most unhammy Malfi ever and I felt I had slightly missed out. Soutra Gilmour’s design certainly would not have precluded a shop of horrors. The action takes place beneath a Escher-like, three-storey, wrought-iron staircase that periodically fills with smoke and serves as a court, a ruined castle and, when the Duchess is on pilgrimage, a St Pancras. Best twice comes on in a backlit see-through nightie. Her cardinal brother come bonking on to the stage beneath his mistress, both propelled on a mechanical bed. But there the fun stops.
Harry Lloyd as the duchess’s other brother, Ferdinand, speaks every tormented line as if he means it and is clearly infatuated with his sister, but is the sanest of werewolves (the fur is on the inside, says his doctor, a brusque GP with the worst bedside manner). Finbar Lynch’s Cardinal, although aided by a fetish-like device on his arm, devised to support a rehearsal injury, is just too thin to be a gross, lascivious cardinal. Only Mark Bonnar as Bosola – the malcontent-for-hire yet also killer-with-a-conscience – really gives us the Webster we know. A gruff, scatological Galloway, this Scottish Bosola’s redemption, after doing away with the duchess, becomes central to this interpretation’s meaning.
As an antidote to the wild masque made of the story in 2010’s perambulatory Punchdrunk production, Lloyd’s reverential, text-first version is, perhaps, a welcome corrective. But would it have hurt to show us the odd lunatic, as opposed to merely hearing him? It is one noble thing for the duchess to refuse to succumb to madness, but the play needs to.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis