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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Lauren O’Neil/ Ph: Simon Annand

If it's slimy 50s Italy, it must be Jacobean England. The contemptuously casual sex and violence of neo-realist films has lately become the default setting for 17th century revenge drama. It would be unusual for The Duchess of Malfi to have been done, in the past several years, any other way. So even with the addition of a jazz ensemble and a vocalist who wails lines from the play between scenes, Marianne Elliott's production feels stale. Despite rape, incest and murder, there is little charge in this world of sleepwalking evil.
Most of the action is framed by an enormous arch and a marble floor joined by a wide, curving staircase. If they weren't black and steel gray, we could be in a suburban wedding palace. But the story begins on the other side of the set, which revolves to an unfinished-looking blank wall, the modest home of Leantio and Bianca, who has defied her wealthy family to marry for love. When the Duke of Florence sees and is smitten by Bianca, however, he loses no time in ravishing her, disposing of her husband and marrying her himself. To these events, which really happened two generations before Thomas Middleton wrote his play in 1622, the playwright added another seemingly nice girl. Isabella, at first despairing at her arranged marriage to a rich fool, realises it will be a good cover for her affair with her uncle. Both liaisons are managed by Isabella's aunt, Livia, a widow whose own passion leads to tears, then terror, with a masked ball that turns into a slaughterhouse.
Livia is played by Harriet Walter, perhaps the most intelligent actress on the English stage, and certainly the best at portraying the absurdity of the self-obsessed. Like a brisk version of Margaret Leighton (exquisitely dressed, ravaged by sex), she launches with controlled fury into pimping and seduction, her pleasure clearly enhanced by her pretense of gracious hauteur. The rest of the cast, alas, ranges from innocuous to dreary, with the exception of Harry Melling as the cuckold-in-waiting, indeed the cuckoo in the nest. Clad in a mishmash of haberdashery, with electrified punk hair and movements as jerky as if the current were still flowing, he is gloriously horrible. But this shtick is hardly new at the National; it recalls the similar hi-jinks in Nicholas Hytner's strenuously hip 2007 production of The Man of Mode. Its awkward anomaly underscores the lack of conviction of the whole show, in which the contrast of chilly formality and burning lust is conveyed by tepid smoothness, with occasional 21st century crotch-grabbing.
Despite the title, the dangers in the play don't arise from female competition but from the power of rich men over women and the poor. “Women, Beware Misogynists” would have been a more accurate title – or, considering an Englishman created this pit of Italian snakes, "Bloody Foreigners."


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