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The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster, in a new version by Bryony Markwick
Have Your Cake Theatre
King's Head Theatre
(2009)

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New company Have Your Cake is mixedly blessed by choosing John Webster's bloody and uncompromising classic for its first production. It generally stands up well to the transposition from the 1610s to the royalty-obsessed media age of the early 1980s, but to keep all the plot points of a Renaissance tragedy intact in the modern world makes for a strange evening of excess.

The recently-widowed Duchess belongs to a Spencer-like family with royal lineage. She is the public's darling, her life a stream of museum openings, charity galas, modest speeches pledging herself to her country. That is until she marries her personal assistant Anthony in secret, and begins refusing breakfast and wearing loose dresses. Her slimy, controlling brother Ferdinand has infiltrated her household via a scruple-free ex-con, Bossola, in his pay to pose as the Duchess's butler. Needless to say the truth outs, the press bares its teeth and Ferdinand enacts an unthinkable revenge.

As the Duchess, Katharine Gwen Pons really is quite luminous: elegant, self-contained and immaculately spoken; the picture of wronged grace. She has good chemistry with Damian Christian-Howard as the unfailingly decent Anthony, the difference in status between the two seeming utterly unimportant. This is the narrative's central problem: the hysteria generated by their transgression is so disproportionate that we start to wonder what world we're in.

The production itself lacks the sense of incestuous obsession that is supposedly at the heart to the writer's interpretation, as providing the motivation for Ferdinand's shocking actions. Tim Macavoy embodies well a sort of stiff, poisonous propriety - "you smell cheap", he snaps at his sister's perfume-wearing - but fails to convey sufficient depth of emotion. The play is more savvy in parts - for example, referring to the danger that Ferdinand might feed rumours of his sister's mental instability to the press and then confirm them, using the hysterical media to ultimately have her sectioned. But overall the dependence on the traditional murderous plots behind closed doors to drive the story wastes the modern-day setting.

Alan Mirren as Bosola is suitably cynical, and bitterly eloquent on the subject of a world in which, as he sees it, we are nothing but walking bags of meat awaiting inevitable decay. However, Markwick's version is most interesting when it has him wrestle with his conscience: at these points we genuinely don't know which way the narrative will turn. At these points the play is straining at the bounds of the original story, but can't break them - a shame.

Imogen Russell Williams's direction is smooth and subtle, with some outstanding touches. The Duchess tugging gently on the rope her executioner will use to strangle her is a shocking moment of perverse intimacy. Admittedly, the climactic multiple deaths are a little shambolic, and the removal of the Duchess's trusted friend from the stage to leave the Duchess vulnerable at a crucial point needs to be handled less clumsily.

There is one outstanding conceit to the production: the introduction of two silent servants or "minders". Under Rosalind Parker's movement direction they stand unmoveable in corners; bow blankly to their enemies; hold each other's eyes as they dance furniture on and off stage. They are impeccably obedient, but how much do these speechless flunkeys really know? There is a hint that it's they who really hold the power - who are complicit in acting to preserve the stultifying world of old money by any means. A chillingly effective invention.

Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury