Eve Best is well on the way to being one of our greatest actresses and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is routinely cracked up to be one of the finest Jacobean tragedies outside Shakespeare. But is the latter really the case? Does Webster substantially survive George Bernard Shaw's deadly swipe when he called him “the Tussaud laureate” – over-inclined, as in this play, where the Duchess is tricked by waxwork effigies into believing that her husband and son have been hanged, to piling on the horrors while failing to create fully realised human beings? Jamie Lloyd's revival at the Old Vic suggests that the answer to these questions is, by and large: no.
They have thrown everything at the piece – including a monumental three-tier cathedral-cum-palace set by Soutra Gilmour, which comes replete with elaborate landings and walkways. Lloyd's under-energised production fails to utilise these with any vigour, though, and gets off to a depressing start with one of those generalised masked balls where the corrupt Renaissance court shows itself off in a stately – and here rather lifelessly performed – pavane. The widowed Duchess defies her brothers by secretly marrying her steward Antonio (dashing Tom Bateman) but the scene in which she takes the initiative in cryptically wooing him should crackle with more of a sense, from him, that she could be luring him into a trap. As for her siblings, Finbar Lynch's poisonously sardonic Cardinal is first seen looking bored to death while being vigorously ridden in bed by his two-faced mistress Julia. Possessiveness over his sister emerges in Ferdinand as almost masturbatory and incestuous prurience as he imagines her being pleasured by “a strong-thighed bargeman”, but Harry Lloyd fails to rise to the requisite level of barking pseudo-identification.
Entering in an unnecessary blaze of white light, to symbolise her superiority of soul, Eve Best's Duchess strikes all the role's various note with a lovely unforced naturalness – from the wittily playful ways in which she tries to parry her siblings' interference through to the heartbreaking, wonderfully unmarmoreal stoicism with which she meets her end. The graphic depiction of her strangling risks catering, however, to the kind of prurience regretted in Ferdinand. Bosola, the spy and assassin who comes to appreciate the error of his ways, is brought to life by a bitterly ironic but vocally monotonous Mark Bonnar. As delivered by Lloyd's cast, the dialogue too often sounds like the exchange of fancily worded proverbs. A disappointment.
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