Summer Trip: The Duchess of Malfi at The Old Vic
Writer: John Webster
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Cast: Eve Best, Tom Bateman, Tom Bonnar, Harry Lloyd, Finbar Lynch, Iris Roberts,
When the curtain dropped on the final performance of The Duchess of Malfi at The Old Vic and the cast came back out to receive their applause from the, now standing, audience, several bouquets of flowers were flung so enthusiastically at Eve Best’s feet that several members of the cast were jolted back in surprise.
But not because the play lacked critical acclaim. It was a fantastic run which remained passionate, tragic and engulfing right until the very end. Eve Best, in the title role, played a captivating Duchess full of the genuine affection and brave dignity which seeps through the pages of Webster’s classic and Best’s performance was so natural that it left her famous comments that ‘Webster is like learning to eat with a chainsaw’ waiting in the darkness of the wings. Best, perhaps most memorable from her role as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, or as starring along side Colin Firth as Wallis Simpson in The King’s Speech, performs with an enticing glint in her eye which never fails to bring a humorous edge to her performance, and even with the threatened figure of the Duchess, Best’s ability to humour the audience with a look or a comment perfectly brought about the tangible nature of the tragedy that was to follow.
Insightful decisions in casting must be credited to director Jamie Lloyd and are responsible for a huge part of the play’s success. Ferdinand (Harry Lloyd- but no relation to the director) played a perfectly unstable and insanely fearful Ferdinand, who with kohl eyes and short mussy hair looked rather like a Renaissance Jack Sparrow, his deterioration into madness heightened by the incestuous desire for his own sister which Jamie Lloyd clearly chose to emphasise. Harry Lloyd was also responsible for bringing many crazed Doctor Who fans to the stage door afterwards, so we must thank him for that delight. The Cardinal (Finbar Lynch), as he should be, was the more intensely venomous for his violent overseeing and casual lack of morality, the direct opposite of Antonio (Tom Bateman) who was modest and humble but masculine and completely gorgeous. It was also a very nice surprise to see Iris Roberts in the role of Julia, and in fact understudying the Duchess, a somewhat under-seen but brilliantly talented actress who always brings so much to a production. Julia’s entrance came when a double bed covered in furs was wheeled onto stage, and with her back to us, she sat straddled across the Cardinal’s lap. He was still wearing shoes and socks. Under Roberts’ influence Julia became a wild and slightly psychotic character who could’ve warranted much more time on stage.
Credit is also due, as it usually is at The Old Vic, to the stage designers who created marvellously intricate levels of tall brass-coloured walkways and balconies which looked like the inside carvings of an Eastern candle burner, and smelt like Moroccan incense; that intense aromatic scent often associated with desire. Choreography at times seemed a little Da Vinci Code, eerie hooded figures danced in a slow, menacing fashion on stage and the introduction of Venetian-looking masks and candlelight made clear that ‘the devil, that rules i’ th’ air, stands in your light’. Deception was about to fuel sorrow in the scenes to come.
By the second act, the Duchess’ entrance in a loose white shawl which made her look diminished and frail highlighted the physical deterioration she had suffered at the hands of her brother’s manipulations, and anyone who knew the play was waiting for bodies to litter the stage. Someone behind me started to cry. Lloyd’s Duchess was clearly a mother and a wife, someone who asked not for power but for the simple allowances of human love and human life and who was refused these rights by oppressive, power-hungry brothers. However, Best was as convincing a Duchess as Webster intended and remained gracious and dignified even when the rope was around her neck. Webster’s wise words that ‘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’ rang true, but who we really came away feeling sorry for is the 6 year-old actor playing the Duchess’ son who, standing as one of the only breathing characters on stage in the final scene, is guaranteed to have nightmares for years to come.