Tom Sutcliffe: Death of a Duchess is truly dreadful

The week in culture

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Sometimes you catch sight of your culture from an odd angle and wonder what it might look like to an alien. And another world isn't necessary here, incidentally; another time will do perfectly well, provided it's sufficiently distanced to allow the sense of looking on from the outside. A case in point from last week. Going in to Jamie Lloyd's new production of The Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic, you encounter warning signs by the doors, alerting you to the fact that the show uses a "haze effect". You can hardly miss the fact once you get in, because it's a real pea-souper in there, so I guess the warning isn't intended to forestall sudden shock, like the ones you see about gunshots. It's either there to reassure people that the theatre isn't actually on fire or, possibly, to notify asthmatics that the atmosphere might get a little thick for them.

What there isn't a warning about is the gruesomely extended scene in which a woman is strangled by hired thugs, heels drumming helplessly on the floor as the life is effortfully squeezed out of her. "What?" you can easily imagine an alien observer saying. "You warned people about a bit of mist but not the violent murder? You guys are cold!"

The alien doesn't have all the facts, of course. He (or she or it) may not know that very few of the audience at the Old Vic are there because they've seen Eve Best's name on the fascia and have dropped in on spec. This audience probably knows that The Duchess of Malfi is going to contain murders, and even if they don't they'll have some understanding of the conventions of Elizabethan drama. But to cite a convention as the explanation of a cultural reaction isn't really to address the issue at all. "You mean there are other plays like this?" the alien asks aghast when you advance this argument. You mutter something non-committal, suddenly aware that you might have to build up slowly to the eye-gouging in Lear or the tongue-chopping in Titus Andronicus (a work that a keen researcher once calculated to have an atrocity-per-act rating of 5.2).

Have you ever seen an advance warning for either of those scenes, despite the fact that some stagings are realistic enough to provoke faintings in the faint-hearted? There's nothing some directors like more than ensuring that we hear the vile jelly hit the boards with a resonant splat.

Realism was one reason this thought occurred at all, in fact, because, taking a lead from Hitchcock's notoriously extended killing in Torn Curtain, Jamie Lloyd gives us a real-time murder rather than the decorous abridgement that is more usual on stage. This Duchess knows she is going to die and resigns herself to her fate, after that heartbreaking aside to her maid Cariola to give her little boy "some syrup for his cold". "I'd not be tedious to you," she tells her executioners, which might strike you as an excess of politesse in the circumstances. But her body has different ideas anyway. In this production it won't go quietly, to such an extent that the killers begin to sweat and pant with the physical exertion. They heave on the garotte like men trying to wring every last drop out of a dishcloth and Best jerks and spasms as they work. It's horrible, then borderline funny, then horrible again. And it replaces Webster's simple stage direction – "They strangle her" – with some notion of what that might actually mean in life.

Catharsis would be the conventional way of accounting for this spectacle to a curious alien. We imagine these terrors and tragedies to purge ourselves of the grip they hold on us, we'd explain. But I wouldn't blame the alien for being a tiny bit sceptical about that. It just doesn't quite seem to do justice to the way these acts of violence usually operate, either in Elizabethan dramas or their much less distinguished counterparts today. We're just fascinated by other people in extremis, whether it's an extreme of vulnerability or of violent action. And usually – conventions being what they are – we don't even notice what an odd kind of entertainment we're indulging ourselves with. Lloyd's decision to stretch the Duchess's death way beyond the duration it would usually occupy gives you time to think about it. And I found myself thinking that it might deserve a warning notice.

When you can judge a book by its cover

As has been widely reported, the novelist Timothy Mo parted company with the world of publishing some time ago, preferring to sell and distribute his own books rather than rely on what he saw as the unreliable zeal of the professionals. So, when his latest novel, Pure, came through the letterbox I initially assumed that the plain white wrapper was simply a writer's economy. You don't judge a book by its cover (or at least I imagine Mo's ideal reader doesn't) so why waste resources on it?

Then I saw the title and realised this wasn't the absence of a design but its presence. Mo also makes something of a point of his detachment from London literary culture, but even he must have been aware that Andrew Miller had beaten him into print with that title, and with a book that won the Costa. So he must have been very wedded to that title and its implications. Then I started reading the novel – a gripping account of Muslim separatists in southern Thailand, narrated in part by a Bangkok ladyboy pressed into unwilling service as an undercover agent – and finally I got what that pristine white cover is all about (I think).

It is virtually impossible to read it without marking it. Life just does what it does to absolute purity, which is to scuff it and compromise it and leave its mark. And that fits rather well with the contents of Mo's book, which is a kind of celebration of human impurity. The cover doesn't illustrate the book's theme. It acts it out over time.

Disney fights back with long tail

I wrote a while ago about the possibility that Disney's John Carter might eventually confound the wilder predictions of box-office doom – having noticed a spirited fight-back from some Twitter enthusiasts.

It looked to me like the classic instance of a film that might have a long tail – an apparent catastrophe on its opening weekend but then simply refusing to die on the instructions of the critics.

So it was intriguing the other day to see that Forbes had reported that global earnings for Andrew Stanton's film had just surpassed its original production budget of $250m. It's hardly out of the woods yet. But the fact that the film was the box office No 1 in China for two weeks and that it hasn't opened in Japan yet or gone on sale for home viewing suggests that all those headlines about the scale of Disney's losses might have been a bit premature.

And the backlash to the backlash continues with quite a few bloggers and commentators adding their voices to the chorus of people saying "Oh, lighten up... It was a lot of fun".

I won't make an exact prediction as to how long it will be before the special fan screenings at which devotees turn up in costume and roar along with their favourite lines. But I won't be surprised if it happens.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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