The Duchess of Malfi

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

Jealousy, madness, bloodshed and betrayal make a potent brew in John Webster’s electrifying Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, revived in a compelling new production directed by Jamie Lloyd at the Old Vic.

Duchess of MalfiThe story is set in the Italian Renaissance court of Amalfi and centres on the recently widowed Duchess who has fallen in love with her steward Antonio but is forbidden by her brothers from pursuing this relationship as she has resisted plans to marry a man of their choice.

This is a paranoid society in which reputation is vital, so she and Antonio hide the fact that they have married in secret. But truth will out and they are discovered, with gruesome consequences – she suffers a slow and lingering death by strangulation, carried out by her brother’s sadistic henchman, Bosola, and her two youngest children are also killed. This, however, is only a foretaste of the violence that is to follow as the body count rises.

Wisely director Jamie Lloyd has kept this classic revival within the original’s language and period setting, Soutra Gilmour’s huge set is a dark, labyrinthine mix of palace and prison, where through heavy incense loom hooded figures, carnival masks and candlelit processions. It is a world of echoes and executioners, but the emphasis remains solidly on the central spiritual conflict.

Lloyd brings some imaginative touches the characters perform choreographed movements, suggesting a macabre dance of death and the horrors range from a severed hand to a poisoned bible all of which are staged with ghoulish aplomb. Yet the director manages to skilfully combine jolting shocks with pitch black humour. Furthermore there is a strong contemporary edge to the production as honour killings remain a seemingly insoluble problem on our present day society.

Eve Best brings a warm glowing humanity to the role of the Duchess, combining unbuttoned sensuality with tragic nobility and the courage with which she meets death is unbearably moving. Equally commendable are Harry Lloyd, in suitably deranged form as the Duchess’s jealous twin brother Ferdinand, who dearly harbours incestuous desires for her, Finbar Lynch as the chilling older brother, a sexually corrupt Cardinal, Mark Bonnar who captures the discontent and gnawing conscience of Bosola, and Tom Bateman as the Duchess’s devoted servant, Antonio enamoured with his mistress, who becomes her secret husband.

In all then an exciting and gripping production that makes for a rewarding evening in the theatre.

The Duchess of Malfi

Runs until the 9th June

Box office: 0844 871 7628 

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