Joanna Alpern reviews ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, at the Old Vic, London, 5 April 2012
In Webster’s dark Jacobean revenge tragedy, Bosola says to the Cardinal before killing him: ‘I do glory/ That thou, which stood’st like a huge pyramid/ Begun upon a large and ample base,/ Shalt end in a little point, a kind of nothing.’ He understood the hidden powers of the small and the unsuspecting. I just wish this same philosophy had been applied to the venue: it needed a much smaller theatre.
My father said that that was just a polite way of saying that our seats weren’t very good. And indeed, we were in the lower balcony, lightyears away from the action, musing upon the injustices of the classist ticket system, (with class injustice ironically featuring as a main theme in The Duchess).
Now, in most other West End productions, seating isn’t an issue. But for a play that relies so heavily on its cast-audience confidentiality, its secrecy, its intimacy, and its horror, a small venue is vital. The Arcola, the Barron, or even a church would have been a better setting. The Old Vic, not only because of its recent rodent problems, disappointed.
And this is a very dark play, broken only by influxes of heavenly light whenever the Duchess enters, in white. It’s supposed to be very dark, and very scary. There was a scene set almost completely in pitch-blackness with some screeching animal noises from off-stage, which would have been incredibly effective if the audience had also been in pitch-blackness and if the lights at the back of every balcony of this great big booming theatre had not been blaring on. They also cut the madmen scene in favour of having Carnival masks and monastic robes and candle-lit processions from the very beginning – a more subtle progression from the controlled façade of the Renaissance court to the darker, more animalistic side of things would have been more effective.
After the Duchess’ death the production waned – an historically acknowledged hazard of the play. There wasn’t much progression in any of the other characters. Bosola was neither charismatically evil nor sympathetically relatable, the Cardinal was not nearly as deadpan and impenetrably unpleasant as the script suggests he is, and few cast-members were memorable or distinct. The male characters especially seemed to blur into one mesh of doublet and tights, delivering lines in very much an I’m-reading-a-Jacobean-speech kind of way, with little innovation. And the death scene finale was tedious, one audience member actually remarking to another that they were taking an ‘awfully long time to die’.
However, Eve Best was a strong, charming Duchess. She gave a powerful speech in the second act, ending it by looking into the audience reluctantly, in silence, and then turning to exit, delivering the last line over her shoulder, really driving home the actual powerlessness of her situation. Harry Lloyd made a perfectly slimy, vulnerable and smarmy Ferdinand and the dialogue between these two twins was the most exciting of the production, with Lloyd giving patronising advice while smugly brushing back his hair, and Best smiling at the audience in mockery of him. The scenes with the star-crossed lovers were also quite fun and entertaining.
With some sharper acting and a more intimate theatre this production could have been much better.
Image credit – Jim Linwood