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The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
RNT Lyttelton
(2003)

Was Princess Diana a modern personification of Webster's most famous heroine and therefore, by default, James Hewitt her Antonio? This is the main question that is asked by Phyllida Lloyd's new production of The Duchess of Malfi at the National Theatre.

This production seems far more a representation of Phyllida Lloyd's vision than that of John Webster. It is very much director-led and, arguably, there is nothing wrong with this. The classics sometimes need an injection of modernity to register with contemporary audiences.

Miss Lloyd has chosen to set this dazzling production in the current day with mod cons abounding. Not only are daggers replaced by guns but we start with a scene where Ferdinand interviews the courtiers using a microphone. Before the end, bugging equipment, an electric shaver and police in riot gear also make their appearances.

It seems that The Duchess of Malfi is not a play that ideally lends itself to such updating. While some of the seventeenth century machinations ring true there is far too much that makes little sense when seen through twenty-first century eyes. Torture is surely a thing of the past in Britain today, certainly when perpetrated on behalf of priests and princes. Also, all too often towards the end, Lorcan Cranitch's Bosola looks like a refugee from An Inspector Calls rather than an Italian court spy from 500 years ago.

There are a lot of plus points though. In particular, in one of those dream parts that actresses must covet, Janet McTeer gives a very moving performance. She is well-supported by Cranitch and the actors playing her brothers, Fire and Ice. Will Keen, fresh from The Coast of Utopia is a suitably twitchy as the palsied intemperate Prince Ferdinand, while Ray Stevenson, by contrast, is still coolness itself as the adulterous Cardinal. Sally Rogers provides good support as Cariola.

This tale of adultery does have parallels with more than one member of the House of Windsor. After seeing this production, one does feel pity not only for the Duchess and Charles Edwards as her beefcake Antonio but also their more modern counterparts.

One particular star who might usually remain unsung is lighting designer Mark Henderson, who ensures that the production looks stylish throughout and sinister when required.

This may not be a classic rendition of Webster's play but it does constantly interest and cut to not much over 2¼ hours without an interval, it moves at a cracking pace.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher