'Duchess of Malfi' review or 'Who's up for a game of tragedy tennis?'

'The Duchess of Malfi', John Webster
Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 28th March 2012
Written for Culture Wars

Eve Best as the Duchess of Malfi. Look behind you, there's something attacking your shoulder! Photo Credit: Alastair Muir

How to deal with a play that contains more deaths than a Shakespeare festival and a slew of barmy plot twists, including an apricot pregnancy test, a poisoned Bible and a deadly horoscope? Many directors have dealt with these stumbling blocks, presented by Webster's gory tragedy, by setting their production on 'frenzied fast forward mode', allowing them to skip over the tricky stuff and sweep the audience along, in a chaotic blur of blood. Jamie Lloyd has pressed pause with his considered production, which allows some of Webster's dangerously glittering lines to sparkle but dims the dark excitement and twisted sexual energy, so deeply embedded in this play.

It is a brave man, who attempts to make sense of a piece that revels in senseless deaths and hopeless fates. One has to respect Jamie Lloyd for tackling the piece in this manner but he has given himself a very tough task. I couldn't shake the feeling of a wild beast, being tamed in this production – and, damn, did I miss the fangs. Even Soutra Gilmour's set feels too formal and restrained. There's no doubt its a splendid aesthetic achievement, with its massive gilded staircase, leaning inwards and on the point of implosion. But despite its precariousness, it actually dictates overly formal staging. The characters frequently process up the staircase, in order to offer their speeches from the balcony centre. Whilst this might look pretty, it lends the production – and even the characters – an air of pre-meditation, that seems to go against this play's unruly spirit.

The only way such a stately set could complement this whirlwind tragedy, is if it were to start working against itself; if the set's order was, in time with the tragedy, gradually subsumed by anarchy. The first scene is promising, as a hooded chorus, bearing candles, performs a tense dance. The dancers are reminiscent of monks and suggest religion's dangerous and overbearing presence in Webster's play. If they had only been set free and allowed frightening expression, then they might've created a fizzing, meaningful backdrop. But the dancers, along with the set, remain a symmetric vision rather than a suggestive stage presence.

Eve Best is the one free spirit in this over-marshalled production. She enters in a celestial glow of light but, once released from this formal introduction, is utterly her own creation. Spirited and strikingly 'normal', her Duchess of Malfi would make sense in any production. She is an earthy but rootless creation and her refusal to be sucked into the careful structure, system and rules that surround her, mark her out as a tragic heroine. She moves, thinks and dances to her own beat.

The Duchess' wilful incongruity plays out in intriguing ways. When her brother, Ferdinard (an almost vampiric Harry Lloyd) attempts to kiss her in bed, she reacts with stony silence. When she is later imprisoned, she refuses to be afraid. And, when she is forced to confront her own death, she denies her executioners an easy way out. In fact, she even forgives them.

This independent spirit lends a fluidity to Best's Malfi, that is missing elsewhere. Harry Lloyd is an incredibly focused performer but his Ferdinand is too stiff, too white, too much. Finbar Lynch is imposing as the red-soaked Cardinal but it is hard to see him as a dangerous power when, for most of the time, he is surrounded by few. Mark Bonnar, as Bosola, attempts to play it straight but only ends up highlighting his character's inconsistencies.

When the final blood bath arrives, against a Kill Bill-esque backdrop of snow, it's hard to make sense of this senseless ending, in the midst of such a sobre world. And when Bosola claims, 'We are merely the star's tennis balls', one looks in vain for this fateful court, with its warped rules, blurred lines and corrupt officials.