It's murder - especially for the audience

By John Nathan, April 11, 2012
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The Duchess of Malfi, The Old Vic, London SE1

Eve Best and Tom Bateman in a rare, non-violent moment in the grisly Jacobean tragedy

Eve Best and Tom Bateman in a rare, non-violent moment in the grisly Jacobean tragedy

If, like me, your reflex response to watching a character being strangled to death is to hold your breath until it is all over, then, like me, you are likely to have turned a shade of blue by the time Eve Best's likeable Duchess of Malfi meets her end.

In John Webster's 1613 Jacobean tragedy, the duchess falls for a dashing courtier, Antonio (Tom Bateman), who is well beneath her social status. The affair so offends her brothers - particularly the deranged Ferdinand (Harry Lloyd) - that she is made to suffer in ways that are both cruel and unusual, Webster's point being that the punishment does not fit the "crime".

Ferdinand first has her incarcerated in a dungeon, then transported to a lunatic asylum so that her misery is serenaded by the tormented cries of the insane.

The maddest moment of all comes when she is shown the hanging, bloody bodies of her young son and his father. They are later revealed to be wax effigies, a ruse that confirms her tormentor to be a nutter of such barking proportions that even the murderous mercenary Bosola feels squeamish at his unremitting cruelty.

Jamie Lloyd's production attempts to do to Webster what his fellow director Michael Grandage did to a production of Schiller's Don Carlos at the Donmar. That is to say, he swathes the play in mist and pierces the gloomy Italian court of Malfi with shafts of milky light. Soutra Gilmour's set is a towering lattice-work of gothic balconies and ramparts. But the play resists Lloyd's attempts to inject the kind of thriller pacing that propelled Grandage's production.

The question of why Ferdinand objects so unnaturally to his sister's affair is answered the moment his rage gives way to an incestuous kiss. We should be grateful that Harry Lloyd makes Ferdinand so convincingly psychopathic - it injects a little logic into this psychologically slippery play. But all the stabbing, garotting and carnage that follows need stronger motives than jealousy and incest; stronger even than that delivered by a portrait of a society mired in corruption.

Yet it would be easier to let the absence of motive slide if the production had remembered to make all that brutality as horrifying to those who experience it as it is to the audience watching it.

As it is, even after Best's duchess sees her husband and son hanging from the rafters, she is soon back to her head-girl self, boosting her maid's flagging morale with the example of her own stoicism.

And so, when the curtain falls and we can breathe normally again, it is with relief that not only has the duchess's suffering finally ceased, but that we have made it to the end of such a grisly play. (Tel: 0844 8717628)

    Last updated: 1:10pm, April 11 2012