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Escaping Corruption in The Duchess of Malfi

By Periscope @periscopepost
Escaping corruption in The Duchess of Malfi

Eve Best as The Duchess of Malfi: Publicity image


“A prince’s court
Is like a common fountain, whence should flow
Pure silver-drops in general. But if’t chance
Some curs’d example poison’t near the head,
Death and diseases through the whole land spread.”
(Duchess of Malfi, Act I, Scene i, l.10)

It’s a good time for Jacobean tragedies on the London stage – barely a fortnight ago I revelled in the adolescent fever-dream of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore; now James Lloyd brings to the Old Vic a stately, portentous, wrenching production of John Webster’s 1612ish The Duchess of Malfi, which is at once classic and innovative. The text has been cleverly edited – the beginning is shifted to solve some timing issues, for instance; the dumb show has been excised, as have characters that have little to do with the plot – to make it knife sharp; or alternatively a hollow cave in which revenge gapes and roars, never quite knowing which way it has to turn or who its agent might be, and in which goodness is as fragile as the skin of an apricot.

Webster’s entropic revenge tragedy sees a young widow, the Duchess of Malfi, forbidden by her royal brothers, the Duke Ferdinand (an excellent Harry Lloyd, who played him with sinister insanity, a quivering edginess that was thrilling and moving) and the Cardinal (a Machiavellian, martial Finbar Lynch) from marrying Antonio, her steward (played with Disney-esque heroism, shading into something more powerful, by Tom Bateman.) Antonio and the Duchess conceal their love, only for it to be revealed; they are banished, the Duchess imprisoned and then murdered.

Eve Best’s Malfi shone out. She was the serious prince; the playful wife; the tender lover; the wronged woman who goes to her death with pride and honor. The scene in which she must hide her pregnancy and is gulled into revealing it by guzzling apricots was deeply convincing; the gentle frivolity of her love with Antonio as they gambol on her bed was touching (“Were we ever so merry?” she asks) at the same time as it was tinged with foreboding (her hair catches in her brush); at the other end of the spectrum, her death scene was one of the most brutal and powerful things I have seen in recent theatre, her struggles extended but never comical. The calm serenity of her affirmation of identity when she lies imprisoned: “I am Duchess of Malfi still” was underlain with something powerful and scared at the same time.

Equally brilliant was the malcontent intelligencer Bosola, whose complex relationship with the audience, as he goes from rough murderer to avenger, was teased out perfectly by Mark Bonnar: weathered soldier to disillusioned, howling Fury.

Corruption and rankness seep through the play: standing pools, poisoned fountains and rotting flesh are constant motifs: “Thou art a box of worm seed at best, but a salvatory of green mummy”, says Bosola to the Duchess; Bosola, his vengeane perfect at the end, states “We are only like dead walls, or vaulted graves / That, ruin’d, yields no echo.” The court where the Duchess of Malfi operates is rank – like Hamlet’s Elsinore – a place where gossip and cunning run riot. People hide behind arrases; reputation is all (and nothing). The stage set was a large, cloistered structure, which functioned both as an area where anyone could stand and overhear anyone else, and also shifted (sometimes spectacularly) from public to private space, from court to bedroom, showing how though one may try to shore up those barriers, they are in reality nothing more than gossamer.

Candles lit the gloom, and light and sound were used cleverly: when the Duchess first appears (after Antonio, her beloved, claims that she stains time past, and lights the time to come) she arrived in a blaze of whiteness; when the adulterous Julia is discovered with the Cardinal, the entire stage set dripped with crimson. There is a scene in which Antonio, bent on reconciliation with the brothers, hears an echo. Snow falls, he is wrapped in a cloak: what might have been overly doom-laden was rendered supremely plangent by the fact that the echo sounded like the dead Duchess’ voice.

The production also brought out the animality of the play – although it cut my favorite line (“abortive hedgehog”) it still bristles with wolves and tigers (and dormice), even entering the plot in the form of Ferdinand’s lycanthropy (which, I noticed, is foreshadowed when he tells Bosola that wolves will dig up the Duchess’ corpse.) Ferdinand’s insanity also dripped throughout the rest of the play – was anyone really sane? Cariola, the Duchess’ maid, questions her sanity; when the Duchess is imprisoned, her brother Ferdinand sends madmen to howl outside her windows.

One of the most famous scenes in the play is when the bodies of Antonio and her son are revealed to the Duchess; she is not told that they are only wax representations. It’s both a clever commentary on acting – we are taken in, as the Duchess is – and here it was also a suggestive catalyst of fear: the bodies appeared swinging from nooses, reminding me of the messenger speech in Oedipus Rex describing Jocasta’s suicide by hanging; that slight movement all the more effective.

The cast operated sometimes in masque-like fashion, with static figures that emphasised power struggles; othertimes with stylised, courtly movement, but always with grace and fluidity. The action was quick; the first half like a lit fuse; the second half was like the resonating explosion. This is a superlative production which slices out the beating heart of the play: the dying Antonio calls for his son to leave courtly life; but afterwards, when the princely brothers and Bosola also go, it is his Antonio and the Duchess’ son who is brought in to take on the princely mantel. To enter the machine again. We can only hope that he will be able to purge something from the air of that dank court.

The Duchess of Malfi shows Webster to be just as interesting a playwright as Shakespeare (though why does nobody ever question that a cartwright’s son was able to write about the goings on at a distant court in Italy? Just a thought.) Though the court is rank and enseamed, the Duchess does manage to die a good death – a Christian death. Sanity is possible, and so too is goodness, even if it flares only for a brief, glowing moment.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on

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