The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
Old Vic

Eve Best (Duchess) Credit: Johan Persson
Eve Best (Duchess) and Harry Lloyd (Ferdinand) Credit: Johan Persson
Eve Best (Duchess) and Tom Bateman (Antonio) Credit: Johan Persson

Even the director of the average snuff movie would be loath to pack in some of the horrors with which John Webster chose to garland The Duchess of Malfi.

For all of the gore, it is the psychological cruelty that really stands out in a play that is one of the best of its age and always entertains in grim fashion.

The play should also have great contemporary resonance, since its main thread of sexual passion leads to what would today be referred to as an "honour killing", a subject so often in the news.

It is a great star vehicle and Eve Best inevitably rises to the challenge in a theatre where she has already become a firm favourite, after so memorably playing opposite the artistic director in A Moon for the Misbegotten.

While doing everything right as the flighty lady falls head over heels for her toy boy, Miss Best gets into top gear as this feminist icon four centuries ahead of her time during a pivotal scene just after the interval.

The Duchess's terrible suffering occurs in a scene so strong that it literally drove a couple of voluble, first night punters off home to enjoy an early night rather than put up with any more graphic depictions of the seamy side of Italian life.

The plot of this tragedy from 1613 is almost worthy of Webster's contemporary Shakespeare, though lacking a little in the Bard's subtlety and psychological depth.

In a Catholic age when there should have been no choice, the widowed Duchess does not wish to follow the good counsel of her worthy brothers. They are an interesting pairing, a wilful statesman and a whoring Cardinal, both of whom share a familial tendency towards amorality, respectively played by Harry Lloyd and Finbar Lynch.

Instead, she lusts after a hunky courtier, Tom Bateman's fresh-faced Antonio and marries him in a secret ceremony of dubious legal or religious validity. In no time, they have three children but secrecy is tough to maintain.

The catalyst for all of the ensuing dramas is Mark Bonnar's Bosola, a dirty-faced intelligencer with a broad Scottish accent who becomes a hit man with a heart. This is a plain speaking man tries hard to do his masters' bidding while maintaining his own sense of rectitude.

Even so, the result is a bloodbath of retribution which ensures that evil is snuffed out, whatever your measure of that facet might be.

Soutra Gilmour's set and costumes are suitably lavish, with gilded arches and ornate panelling impressing on us the wealth and dry ice plus minimal lighting adding to the effect, which is truly beautiful at times, especially on the protagonist's first entrance.

Director Jamie Lloyd shows good vision throughout a slightly cut, atmospheric 2¾ hour version that is characterised by clear speaking and very strong acting from the whole company, with Eve Best and Mark Bonnar both outstanding.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher