The TheatreguideLondon Review
The Duchess of Malfi
Old Vic Theatre Spring 2012
Most regular theatregoers will have heard of The Duchess of Malfi and know that it was written somewhere around Shakespeare's time (1613, actually).
Some might be able to identify John Webster (rather than Fletcher or Beaumont or Ford or Massinger or Middleton or Marston) as the author, and a few might be able to distinguish its convoluted plot from the convoluted plots of other Jacobean tragedies.
But, like many other post-Shakespearean dramas, this remains more familiar to English professors than playgoers, and despite a strong central performance Jamie Lloyd's new production for the Old Vic can't do much to bring it alive.
To strip the plot down to its raw outline, the title character secretly marries her steward, an admirable man in all but his low birth, and her outraged brothers set out to punish her, resulting in at least nine deaths (one more than in Hamlet).
Lloyd's production opens with a stately dance, and the whole evening maintains too measured a pace. Too many in the cast recite their lines rather than speaking them with any naturalness, adding to the sense of slowness and deadness, an impression particularly felt when the Duchess herself dies (I'm not giving anything away there) two-thirds of the way through the play, leaving all the less interesting characters to plod on to the end.
The one outstanding performance, and ultimately the one reason to see this (unless you're a postgraduate student ticking off your must-see-sometime list), is Eve Best's portrayal of the Duchess. Almost alone in the large cast she makes us believe that there's a real person behind all the blank verse, a woman happily in love and possessing the character and strength to triumph over her persecutors just by taking everything they can throw at her.
Best also stands out by speaking the verse naturally and conversationally, sounding like a real live human being and not a rote reciter. While this sometimes makes her seem to inhabit a different reality from everyone else, it does contribute to our ability to believe in and sympathise with the woman (not to mention keeping us awake).
Mark Bonnar brings some energy to the assistant baddy Bosola, but not enough to match Best, and not enough to hold the stage and our interest when the play's focus abruptly shifts after the Duchess's death to his late-in-the-game moral compunctions. Finbar Lynch metaphorically twirls his moustachios in melodramatic villainy as the hypocritical Cardinal, but nobody else leaves much of an impression at all.
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