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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
at the Old Vic

MY DARK REGAL FANTASY
By SAM MARLOWE

  Eve Best/ Ph: Johan Persson

Treachery has rarely looked as elegant as it does in Jamie Lloyd’s production of John Webster’s grisly revenge tragedy. Soutra Gilmour’s set offers tiers of ornate iron bridges, perfect for eavesdropping on a conversation below. Pillars tilt alarmingly, hemming the characters in, as if they, too, are straining to watch and listen. The whole is wreathed in smoke, and illuminated by James Farncombe with flickering candlelight and shafts of bright, white light that penetrate murky corners, threatening to scorch the unwary and expose secrets.

Through a rear door enters Eve Best’s Duchess, queenly yet sensual, surrounded by hooded figures wearing grotesque commedia dell’arte masks. She has every appearance of power and confidence. But in this male-ruled Italian court, she is terrifyingly vulnerable, and the actions of her brothers – a libidinous Cardinal (Finbar Lynch) and the twisted, mentally unstable Ferdinand (Harry Lloyd) – will bring her low, torture her beyond endurance and lead to her cruel destruction.

Best is terrific in the role of the wronged woman whose crime is to fall in love, to marry and have children – all of which she tries, and in the end fails, to keep hidden from her brothers, who demand that their widowed sister remain single. When she proposes marriage to her beloved, Tom Bateman’s steward Antonio, she is tremulous, fearful, ardent and imperious all at once. And although, thanks to their difference in status, it is she who asks, he still ends up on his knees, dazzled.

There is fine work across the board in a production that pays close attention to Webster’s fantastically dense and ornate language, and marries it to a visual aesthetic and sound design by Ben and Max Ringham – rushes of rustling, obtrusive courtly clatter, peacocks crying, beating birds’ wings – that is both claustrophobic and opulently atmospheric.

Lloyd’s Ferdinand is clearly struggling with his own contorted desires. Surprising his sister in her bed one evening, he assaults her, forcing her into an incestuous embrace. His response to her eventual murder – a scene of strangulation that here is horribly protracted and disturbingly realistic – is both feverishly excited and deranged, as he retreats from reality into his own brutish fantasy, and succumbs to lycanthropy: the belief that he has become a wolf.

Lynch’s Cardinal, meanwhile, is sensationally, icily nasty. We see him first writing on a bed as he is serviced by his mistress, Julia. He wears a leather sling on one arm – actually due to an injury during rehearsals – but it has a creepily apt S&M connotation. And Mark Bonnar’s Bosola, the acrid, quick-brained ex-convict in the pay of Ferdinand who gains the confidence of the Duchess and then betrays her, is intensely self-loathing. You feel he would crawl out of his own skin if he could.

It’s all as bitter, toothsome and unctuous as molten dark chocolate, and just as difficult to resist. A shudder-inducing pleasure, crammed with passion, perversion and savage sexual politics.

 


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