The Duchess of Padua

Oscar Wilde
Pentameters Theatre
(2010)

Written in 1883 and hardly ever staged - the only performance in England a single matinee to establish copyright - this is a real rarity. It is a Wilde that is very different from his witty comedies and plays that comment on the society of his own time, though it includes and does concern itself with the divide between the nobility and the poor, the rights of women and personal moralities.

It is a five-act drama in the style of Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge plays, written in iambic pentameter and with strong echoes of Shakespearian verse. I don't think this is intended as pastiche or to be in any way satirically but as a serious effort to write in the form. At the time Wilde is said to have declared that is was 'the chef d'oeuvre of my youth.' Of course, at the time he had published only a slim volume of verse, though he had toured America as a lecturer (a tour set up to make sure Americans knew about the aesthetic movement before Richard D'Oyly Carte launched a tour of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe in the States).

The Duchess of Padua was intended as a vehicle for American actress Mary Anderson, indeed was probably commissioned by her. Anderson turned it down. It is not difficult to see why for, though it offers dramatic opportunities to an actress, the character who starts off with the audience's sympathy as a misused wife of a 'bad' Duke, married, it appears, to acquire territory as her dowry, presents a vicious, revengeful streak unlikely to appeal to her fans, though the play ends with a romantic reconciliation and double suicide. Instead, in 1883, after starring in a production of W S Gilbert's Pygmalion and Galatea, she went to England, appearing at the Lyceum and at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The plot tells the story of Guido, a young man who learns from an old friend of his father that he is the son of a nobleman executed by the evil duke of Padua. His father's friend urges him to vengeance and Guido enters the Duke's service to give him an opportunity to wreak it. He and the ill-used Duchess fall in love but Guido sees his murderous intent as a barrier to allowing that love to flower and tips the story into tragic complications.

Gangly Rupert Savage's Guido lacks the erotic charge that would make this instant passion believable. It is all in his head and his body seems to register little, but his vocal delivery gains as the show progresses and curled up with his Duchess at the end we begin to feel his anguish. Victoria Porter plays his love with a strong Northern Irish accent, which I take to be her own although at moments it seemed to waver. There is nothing wrong with using that accent for she is from a different part of Italy but one can't helping wondering whether director Rafe Beckley is trying to make some point by it, some contemporary British relevance, though I could not see a clear one.. Porter is a strong performer but sometimes takes things far too fast to be entirely intelligible.

As the Duke (Peter Gerald), who due to the illness of the original actor took over for this delayed opening with only a week's rehearsal, gives an assured performance which no doubt will grow as the run continues and perhaps give us a fuller glimpse of his evil nature. This is a man who says of his wife 'she is worse than ugly, she is good.' Gerald doubles as a Lord Justice who is by contrast an upholder of the rights of law.

There is some uneven playing among some of the supporting cast. Tom Hall makes a smooth Cardinal, his red robes a much needed touch of colour. One of his colleagues seemed particularly uncomfortable in period costume and the director's idea of using puppet dolls voiced by the actress holding them to present a conversation between a couple of townswomen was an unfortunate mistake. It needs better puppetry and better acting to pull this off; he should have given half of the lines to one of the other actors already on the stage.

Today some of the writing seems too self consciously poetic in a way it may not have done in late Victorian times when poets frequently used archaic forms of speech. It points up the way in which expressions and grammatical forms which were natural contemporary speech four hundred years ago which good actors can make seem quite natural, because they were, seem artifice when consciously used to give historical flavour, made doubly obvious by the passing of a further century.

That this problem can be overcome if only the actors really think what they are saying means is illustrated by Nick J. Field's performance as Count Moranzone, Guido's father's friend. He is a young actor but he doesn't lay on the old man or wear a heavy make-up, just a halt leg and a stick, and each sentence comes out as a continuous thought new minted, marred only by a little too much glowering reaction in one scene where he has no lines to express his feelings. It is a character about whom we learn little from the text, with no obvious personal motivation but Field suggests enough to stop me questioning that.

Wilde probably envisaged a production as elaborate as those that Irving staged at the Lyceum or Tree at Her Majesty's, for he has his play opening in the great square of Padua with the cathedral rising above steps behind, followed by elaborate scenes of courts and dungeons. Pentameters, I need hardly say, does not have those resources and I think it was a mistake for designer Alexis Forte to go for a painted stone-walled setting, rather than relying on his costumes for stage pictures.

We must thank Léonie Scott-Matthews and Pentameters for this opportunity to see this play. I doubt if it will ever find a firm place in the repertoire for some of its writing is too extended and overblown for modern taste but Wilde raises interesting moral dilemmas in the young man who refuses love because of his own guilty intentions and the woman who, misunderstanding his motivation, turns from passionate love which drives her to murder to revenge.

It would take a much more charismatic production than this to give this revival the power of Shakespeare, Middleton or even Kydd but by the end of the play, with the two lovers curled like foetuses together, Beckley was getting it right.

Wilde began another verse play set in the sixteenth century, A Florentine Tragedy, of which only a fragment survives or perhaps was ever written. It too is somewhat self-consciously poetical but it does make one wonder what Wilde might have achieved if he had revisited this genre when he had honed his dramatic skills.

It is unlikely that you will ever get the opportunity to see The Duchess of Padua staged in the way that Wilde envisaged so it is worth taking this rare opportunity to catch an early work that, though flawed, suggests possibilities that can only be imagined.

At Pentameters until 15th May 2010

Howard Loxton