The Duchess of Malfi is one of the more frequently performed non- Shakespearian tragedies in the English repertoire. Indeed, the Wyndhams Theatre has now played host to Webster's drama twice in the one year. "I am Duchess of Malfi still" - "Yes, and don't we know it, dear," you're tempted to respond as, for the umpteenth time, you award her the Mrs Miniver trophy for stoic fortitude.
Scraping off all the layers of sentimental varnish with which this play has been daubed, Declan Donnellan's revelatory Cheek by Jowl production puts to rout any feeling you might have of jaded over-familiarity. Replanted in a pre-war Mussolini-esque Italy and performed on Nick Ormerod's dark, drape-surrounded chess-board set, the story here unfolds as if for the first time, with both a diagrammatic beauty and a stinging psychological penetration.
Webster's widowed heroine is famously persecuted by her two oppressive brothers for daring to engage in a secret second marriage to her steward. The production takes you to the roots of the Duchess's need for defiance by showing you the siblings trapped in stifling patterns of mutual dependence and resentment (petulant slaps followed by desperate hugs) that were evidently laid down in some Ian McEwan-scale damaged childhood. Scott Handy's manic, emotionally arrested toy soldier of a Ferdinand and Paul Brennen's Cardinal, barricaded behind his sour professional smile, aren't aware that they are traversing a prison. The Duchess, though, wants out, which lets disaster in.
Anastasia Hille is simply electrifying in the role. Instead of a trainee martyr, she presents us with an irritable chain-smoking, glamorously sexy and imperious neurotic who knows that she must somehow unbuild her vanity but remains deeply ambivalent about the process. Notice how, after the uneasy seduction across eggshells of Matthew Macfadyen's steward, Hille's Duchess extricates herself from his first passionate kiss. And what begins as a self-help experiment brilliantly here never blossoms into a love that can be expressed at all naturally. George Anton's Bosola, the double- crossing malcontent spy played as a scarred Scottish squaddie, becomes (usefully for his career) the person to whom everyone is able to communicate emotions otherwise blocked. This proxy function reaches a grimly farcical extreme when Julia (Nicola Redmond), the Cardinal's abused mistress, anally rapes Bosola with a loaded pistol.
Hille wrings the heart because she plays against the pathos of the role, delivering supposedly tear-jerking lines with a willed ironic swagger, hurling throaty guffaws at her oppressors and comically insisting (like a true aristocrat) on doing everything in her own good time. Wearing a mock-crown left by one of the madmen sent to plague her, she declares: "I am Duchess of Malfi still," on a tearful sardonic note as though she had just lifted it from a dictionary of quotations and was uncertain now of its applicability.
The production has a black ceremonial air, the Duchess's banishment symbolically signalled, for example, by the refusal to her and her husband of communion at Mass. By making her servant Cariola (Avril Clark) a religious maniac who none the less dies a much more cowardly death, this Malfi questions which of them had the deeper faith. If you rate productions according to the risks they pose from passive smoking, this may not (given the Duchess's penchant for substance abuse) be the evening for you. For everyone else, essential viewing.
n To 20 Jan. Booking: 0171-369 1736
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