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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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide