The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
National Theatre
Malvern Theatres

"Webster", T S Eliot famously remarked, "was much possessed by death/ And saw the skull beneath the skin." He wasn't whistling Dixie. Spending two-and-a-half hours in his company, care of a new production of The Duchess of Malfi, is akin to being closeted in a graveyard with Johnny, the painter character from The Fast Show, much given to crying, "Black, black black!"

Machinations, neurosis, incest, and bloody vengeance, all shot through with brilliantly inventive, knotty and darkly poetic language; Duchess invites its audience to take a walk on the wild side.

While the eighteenth century, before Garrick at least, and the Victorians after him, were able to bowdlerise his near contemporary Shakespeare and come up with something more to their liking, Webster proved far less tractable. Even William Archer, a discerning critic and one of the National Theatre's founding fathers, found the play "intolerable", and it's easy to see why.

It's not so much that Webster looked beneath the skin, as lifted up a rock and dispassionately observed what wriggled and slithered underneath. The Duchess of Malfi is forced to foreswear remarriage by her brother Ferdinand, the Duke of Calabria. But as is clear from the text and this production, his feelings towards the Duchess (Janet McTeer) are decidedly more than fraternal.

But equally the Duchess is no shrinking violet; Webster's creation is very much a modern woman; passionate, whose love lists where it will and who will follow her heart's desires.

It's a terrific performance by McTeer, as even this production's critics have acknowledged, and it is almost matched by a similarly powerful one by Will Keen as Ferdinand; wildly neurotic, driven by a passion he has no control over; implacable in his revenge, irreconcilable in his grief.

The text has been heavily cut and plays without an interval - both have caused some critics to complain. The benefit is a gain in focus and intensity. However, it's an uneven production. I don't object to the modern setting, but the production seems to swim in and out of focus, now possessing a clarity and a steel grip, now swimming out of view into a mere wash of words.

It's difficult to pin down exactly why this should be so. Certainly McTeer and Keen are clarity itself. There are good supporting performances too from Charles Edwards as the Duchess's inamorato, Antonio Bologna, and Ray Stevenson as the Cardinal, the Duchess's brother.

The setting is stark, dark. Beyond the stage steps rise into the blackness which, at the denouement of the play, the gory victims - and there are many - rise and mount, presenting the audience with a bloody mirror of ourselves. A moveable perspex scene serves as an arras.

Harold Pinter loved this play: its language, he said, made him dizzy. This production is entertaining and captures the dark heart of the play but somewhere, along the way, director Phyllida Lloyd lost that which lifts this play from Hammer House of Horror into the sublime.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

Are you sure?