“I account this world a tedious theatre, for I do play a part in’t ‘gainst my will”
Usual caveats and all that, this was an early preview of The Duchess of Malfi that I caught at the Old Vic, and so bear that in mind throughout. Positive comments on previews never seem to cause any controversy but without giving too much away about the direction this review (of a preview) will take, that is hardly likely to be the issue here. I have to say that for the first time, especially at a big theatre, I really felt like I was watching something in the middle of its creative process, that really was still trying to find its feet. Which I suppose is what some would argue the preview period is about but when ticket prices of up to £45 are being charged, it does feel a bit rich.
Marking Jamie Lloyd’s directorial debut at the Old Vic, this revival of The Duchess of Malfi was largely most anticipated by me for attracting Eve Best back onto the London stage (though Lloyd’s treatment of She Stoops To Conquer also quite whetted the appetite). Her Beatrice in the Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that I’ll remember for years to come, and so though it went against my natural instincts, I forked out for a good stalls seat (Row F) for this in anticipation of theatrical yumminess. What I got though was something else, a half-baked cake of a show with what feels like a set of serious misjudgements and lasted well over three hours.
This was first experience of The Duchess of Malfi (I’m choosing to skate over the Punchdrunk interpretation as little of it made any impact on me) and so I wonder how much of a difference that made for me. Upon being widowed, the Duchess takes a new lover, below her class, and marries him secretly as her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, are determined to control her life and when they find out what she has done, during which time she has had 3 children by him (although how she got away with this I’m not entirely sure), they exact a chilling, oppressive revenge on her.
Eve Best as the Duchess was mostly as good as I hoped she’d be in this tragic role, a strong-willed woman to the end, her self-possession is beautifully played by Best whose every tilt of the head seems to speak volumes. [SPOILER ALERT} I was therefore gutted that she died well before the end of the show, I definitely wanted more Best for my buck: if nothing else, the play just isn’t anywhere near as interesting once she’s been dispatched. Mark Bonnar as Bosola, the assassin whose ethical journey actually takes centre place, is a strikingly charismatic presence throughout and his growing connection with the Duchess as he slowly reaches a greater moral understanding is very well done. But, and bear with the cake analogy here, if Best is the lemon curd and Bonnar a delightfully complementary lemon icing, they are adorning a misshapen cake of an entirely different nature, probably a coffee and walnut one.
I say misshapen, because although Soutra Gilmour’s set is a thing of absolute breathtaking beauty, it soon becomes clear it is rather deceptive in its impressiveness. A towering three-tiered contraption of burnished gold metalwork, bridges spanning the stage and filled with incense is highly atmospheric, but it soon becomes apparent that the top level is redundant (health and safety one assumes) and the restrictions it imposes on the stage soon become apparent. The design makes no use of the depth of the Old Vic, thus later scenes become crowded at the front especially as locations shift and it starts snowing – people are literally climbing over each other at the end.
And it’s coffee and walnut because there’s a strange imbalance to the ensemble which is skewed a little too much on the side of youth. Harry Lloyd is the most obvious example here, cast as the twin brother to Best’s Duchess though more than a decade her junior, and it just looks and feels wrong. He simmers and growls entertainingly enough but the gravitas needed to really convince of Ferdinand’s innate evil wasn’t quite present. And this disparity is reflected back across so much of the ensemble: Tom Bateman is actually quite strong as the Duchess’ secret husband, but likewise feels too young in the role; Iris Roberts is frequently saddled with having to deliver her lines whilst being molested which is somewhat distracting yet still too maniacal for its own good; Madeline Appiah as Cariola the Duchess’ lady also needs to mellow her performance out a little and play off Best rather than trying to make an impact. There’s obviously room for performances to grow and mature – indeed Adam Burton, the understudy on for the injured Finbar Lynch managed an amazing job given the circumstances – and some cast members might learn to temper the over-theatricality. But equally there were some truly shocking moments in here, including one of the worst performances I think I’ve ever seen on a professional stage, which I fear are beyond rescue.
Matters are not helped by Lloyd’s directorial style here which is lugubrious at best. Programme notes and interviews have talked of his desire to showcase Webster’s language despite its irregular difficulty and density. But what this has currently resulted in is a painfully deliberate style of enunciation which drags interminably, and caused audible guffaws at several moments. He’s instituted cuts in the text which remove some useful explanatory notes (FYI when it looks like we’ve suddenly moved into a gay sauna advert, it’s because Ferdinand has paid some men to give the Duchess the heebie-jeebies) and despite the lengthy running time, key scenes still felt rushed through. Last but not least, the death scenes are quite extraordinary. The first major death is genuinely very shocking in its drawn-out brutality, a strangulation that goes on forever and is highly effective. But sadly, this same trick repeated for every other death, and there are a lot of deaths – it is a Jacobean tragedy after all – and so it loses its impact way before the end of the play as the second half fell apart in a tangle of confused styles (I wasn’t expecting so much laughter from the audience) and sheer randomness (the complete lack of reaction from the surviving child as he climbed over corpses aplenty – including his father’s…).
So there you have it. The Duchess of Malfi was a big disappointment for me in the watching of it, but has been a source of much amusement this past week in revisiting it and I am indebted to several people for their views and anecdotes which have most likely ended up somewhere above. I think it is clear that elements of the production will improve significantly once the show opens and it has a long time to run to allow performances to improve. But I can’t help but feel that there are fundamental errors at work here too – a painfully drawn-out approach exacerbated by an apparent lack of directorial clarity, a staging that doesn’t utilise the strengths of the theatre and a fatal unevenness to the ensemble which, for me, dooms the show from the start. I am genuinely highly fascinated to hear what other people have to say about it though, so do let me know what you thought about the production, especially if it made you think about cake too!