RSC at the Gielgud
There can be little doubt that one of the primary aims of John Marston when he wrote The Malcontent was to pay homage to the work of William Shakespeare. The allusions are manifold and one can play a little game while watching the production, ticking off each of the plays of Shakespeare as a reference (some more subtle than others) appears.
With very little effort, one can spot King Lear, Richard III, Hamlet, The Winter's Tale, Measure for Measure etc etc. In addition, the comic character of the aptly-named Malevole, beautifully portrayed by Sir Anthony Sher, pays homage to his earlier performance with the company, as Moliere's Tartuffe.
In recent years, Dominic Cooke has been better known for his work on radical new plays with the Royal Court. About ten years ago he was an assistant director with the RSC and under his direction The Malcontent, moved to a Banana Republic in 1970s, is a vastly entertaining exploration of corruption and morality, as relevant to the 21st century as it was for the 17th.
Malevole is not all that he seems. In his grubby clothes, with a wig they might have spent the previous week as a dying mole, he acts as a Rasputin-like confidant of the Duke of Genoa. In fact, he himself is the former Duke of Genoa who has fallen out of favour. This allows Sir Anthony to have great fun, drawling as the comic tramp but to turn, on an instant, into a noble Duke. This gives him ample opportunities for delivering fine speeches. He is very well-suited to both roles.
Joe Dixon plays the vicious, Iago-like Mendoza, a man who will stop at nothing to achieve his aim to become a Duke and to win the favours of not one Duchess but two. As the morals in Genoa make it a second Sodom , this is not a difficult task for a silver tongued rogue. As Marston writes, the Duke's residence is rather a bordello than a palace.
Amanda Drew as the current Duchess may love her husband but she certainly does not do so faithfully. It is not only Mendoza that wins her affections easily, but also another nobleman, Ferneze (Billy Carter). Her predecessor, Maria (played by Anna Madeley) demonstrates the chastity true Duchess.
As Mendoza works his way into the dukedom, all of his rivals are put to death - or so he thinks. This enables Marston to build up to a rousing finish beautifully realised by Cooke and his designer, Robert Innes Hopkins, as the four "dead" Musketeers appear at court clad in skull-like masks to depose him and bring virtue back to society.
This play can tip over into melodrama on occasions but it is very entertaining and, with excellent performances from the key actors as well as some good character acting by Claire Benedict as Maquerelle, a bawd with an Afro hairstyle and a Caribbean taste in clothing, it will prove a treat all who are able to see it.
It bodes well for the "Jacobethan" season of five plays that the RSC has brought to the Gielgud via Stratford and Newcastle. They run through December and January.
The Malcontent plays at the Gielgud until 25th January.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher