John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi tells of the eponymous lady’s decision to remarry and have children, after being widowed, because she truly loves the palace steward, Antonio. This, however, offends her brothers, the Duke and the Cardinal, who end up killing her and others in a tale of deceit, desperation and revenge.
Jamie Lloyd’s production emphasises the play’s themes in such a way that the protagonists’ values still feel relevant to an audience that no longer holds them. We learn what respectability means in Webster’s seventeenth century (and earlier as the basic tale is older), and of the lengths to which people will go to keep their vows. We see how a genuine fear of hell directs the Duke and Cardinal’s actions, and yet are constantly reminded of their self-serving and distorted outlook. If the Duchess’s actions could ever be viewed as sinful, the play makes clear that they are simply not on the same scale as the crime of murder.
Eve Best gives a winning performance as the Duchess, helping us to appreciate how her own feisty character, personal needs and considerable intelligence underscore her every decision and action. Mark Bonnar is also strong as the partially reluctant spy Bosola. Even as we know he is uttering lies to gain the Duchess’s confidence, it feels easy to believe him, and as his loyalties become increasingly torn, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for the character. Finbar Lynch is also effective as the malevolent Cardinal and Harry Lloyd as the ruthless, although increasingly sanity threatened, Duke.
Cloaked figures enhance the atmosphere as they swirl around, but the production never overplays such visual effects. If there is a difficulty it lies the other way, in that things remain so well controlled that as the body count rises it is hard to feel that sickening sense of frenzied destruction. When the Duchess faces death, it is with so much dignified serenity that her own frailty and helplessness hardly register at all.
But Soutra Gilmour’s set and James Farncombe’s lighting are highly effective, with a ‘wrought iron’ structure supporting ornately decorated staircases. By sloping inwards the set creates a strong sense of perspective, and helps to make it feel as brilliantly lofty as the production as a whole.
Until 9 June. For tickets click here.
Photo: Is Marriage such a Crime? Eve Best as the Duchess and Tom Bateman as Antonio, © Johan Persson.