The Duchess of Malfi Review The Old Vic‘s production of The Duchess of Malfi is an incredible experience; dark and riveting with exciting twists and turns.
The set is an impressive three-tier high cathedral and designer Soutra Gilmourh has cleverly used plenty of stairs, passageways and very dark corners, perfect for hiding unnoticed in the shadows for eavesdropping. The aroma of incense and sinister lighting reflects perfectly the themes of this Jacobian tragedy, which are revenge, power, cruelty, corruption, class, incest and the status of women.
Director Jamie Lloyd has made sure that the Old English text of John Webster springs to life, at times hitting you hard in the face with the characters speaking the unspeakable, describing evil thoughts, plans and their despair, yet at other times Webster’s words can be astonishingly beautiful, when love, optimism and joy are spoken of.
The play is set in the court of Malfi in 1504 to 1510. The recently widowed Duchess has fallen desperately in love with Antonio, a steward. The Duchess’s greedy brothers forbid her to marry Antiono as they will not share their inheritance. The Duchess and Antonio marry in secret and sometime later – fearing for their safety – they hatch a plan of escape for themselves and three children.
Tragically things do not go to plan for the Duchess and her family and one of the most difficult moments of the play to watch is when the Duchess is murdered. Believing her husband and eldest child dead, and desperately bereaved, she stoically accepts her fate. Her death from strangulation is so superbly acted and terrifyingly drawn out that it actually leaves you shaken.
Another electrifyingly gory moment is when the Duchess is presented with a dead hand by her twin brother. Horrifically it is then revealed to her that it belongs to her beloved husband. She is then shown her husband Antonio and eldest child, hanging from ropes – dead. We discover later that they are in fact just waxworks and that they are both still living.
There is plenty more bloodshed, however, as the plot thickens, becoming a whirlwind of evil doings and revenge.
The play ends with the eldest child having survived this deadly environment becoming the heir to the Malfi fortune.
Eva Best is sensational as the Duchess, from her captivating entrance where she appears bathed in white light, as if to symbolise her pure heart; she has you completely absorbed in her desperate tale. In fact, Webster’s play was first printed as The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy.
Handsome Tom Bateman is totally dashing as Antonio, putting his love for the Duchess before protecting his own life.
Caroila, the Duchess’s waiting woman played by Madeline Appiah, is a stand-out performance. She is constantly by the Duchess’s side through all her turmoil and fiercely loyal till her own unfortunate murder.
The evil brothers Ferdinand and The Cardinal are superbly played by Harry Lloyd and Finbar Lynch, both chillingly evil – Ferdinand full of rage with extreme violent outbursts and The Cardinal a corrupt official in the Catholic Church who is dead to his conscience.
The spy Bosola is played forcefully by Mark Bonnar: bitter and confused he barks his laments at the audience.
This story is based loosely on real events of the time, and however shockingly violent these events might seem to us, it’s a sobering thought that this play reflects nothing that isn’t happening in the world today.
Fantastically acted by such a talented cast, this is a production you definitely will not forget.
The Duchess of Malfi Review by Joanna Forest
Old Vic Theatre
10th April 2012