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