Hierarchies are disturbed with disastrous consequences in two of this week's openings. At Greenwich, in Webster's Duchess of Malfi, an aristocrat marries her steward and as a result is subjected to imprisonment, torment and death by her outraged brothers. Meanwhile, in The Servant at the Birmingham Rep, the idea that "no man is a hero to his valet" is carried to creepy lengths as the eponymous man-servant reduces the young master to infantile dependency, ousts his disapproving girlfriend and finally lures him into a seedy mnage trois. Sharing a bed and the same lower-class girl, the men enact an unsettling parody of parity.
Rank is blurred, though, as an issue in Philip Franks's patchy staging of Malfi. Robert Demeger's cut-price Cardinal, for instance, is so doggedly down- market that it seems a positive joke when his sister kneels to kiss his ring. And Juliet Stevenson's Duchess, wonderful though she is at conveying the heroine's impetuous sexual ardour and playful intelligence, seems loth to project aristocratic defiance. Puzzlingly, she delivers the line "I am Duchess of Malfi still" not with a touch of class but with a drooping ruefulness and a pause before "still" that suggests a longing to discard this identity.
The cast is hit-and-miss, with Robert Glenister playing Bosola like some rabid, gabbling ferret, and with Joe Dixon as the clandestine husband making you wonder what the Duchess saw in this bland hunk. The best performance comes from Simon Russell Beale, who turns Ferdinand into a shattering study of incestuous desire, showing it to be, in his case, a perversion of an intense capacity to identify with his sister. Goggled-eyed as he excites and torments himself with the thought of his sister having sex, Russell Beale's Ferdinand, stationed aloft during the prison scene, also clutches at his own throat as she is strangled to death. In a kinkily tragic way, it is he who is Duchess of Malfi still.
Originally a 1948 novella by Robin Maughan, The Servant was adapted into an unforgettable 1963 film by Pinter and Losey. For his highly engrossing production for Birmingham Rep, Bill Alexander has used Maughan's less elliptical 1966 stage version, but has set the piece in 1948 so that it can be seen as symbolic of the changes in post-war class structure.
Kit Surrey's vast set presents the house in its various levels: master bedroom, drawing-room and the below-stairs kitchen in which James Purefoy's excellent, spoiled and downwardly aspiring Tony eventually slums it. Paul Copley as the servant, Barrett, plays the man more plainly than Dirk Bogard, whose smirking deference and prissy delivery are hard to banish from your mind. It's arguable, though, that Copley's sly, uncapped-up performance makes the point about class better. The play doesn't veer into the anarchy of the film, but it has its own atmosphere of insidious degradation.
n `Duchess of Malfi': to 25 March at Greenwich Theatre, London SE10 (0181- 858 7755); `The Servant': to 4 March at Birmingham Rep (0121-236 4455)
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