In the 90s Susan Bennett described The Duchess of Malfi as the play of choice for theatres wishing to put on a Renaissance work which wasn’t by Shakespeare, and the last twenty years have seen the numbers of productions explode. This dense, eccentric seventeenth-century revenge play has seen become some sort of touchstone in recent years: it’s in the classroom, the lecture hall and the theatre more and more each year. It has an older woman marrying her employee in secret, her incestuously-inclined brother who believes he has become a werewolf and a Cardinal who murders his mistress with a poisoned Bible and then sees demons in the fishponds. What’s not to enthuse about?
It wasn’t surprising that Kevin Spacey scheduled The Duchess of Malfi for the Old Vic this summer, but Jamie Lloyd’s production was something of a surprise. Graceful, well-executed and fluent, it was also curiously distant. The savagery, weirdness and chaos of the play were all kept behind the proscenium – a tone symbolised by the cutting of the madmen’s dance in the fourth act so we only heard their cried briefly and decorously piped in. Lloyd seemed to have decided the play was a timeless classic of the Renaissance theatre, and set out to give a demonstration of that idea without demanding that Malfi have anything urgent or shocking to say at this particular moment. It may be that Webster’s astonishing success has rendered him mostly harmless.
The set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, presented us with a set of walkways, passages and staircases which helped the general impression of intricate claustrophobia. Scenes on the floor level were frequently overlooked by characters above in the galleries, giving a powerful sense of the close life of the court. The panels which made up the balconies were decorated with stylized foliage punched out of the metal, a touch which hinted at the sterile, formalised patterns life at Malfi was trapped within. The opening sequence – a stately and sinister dance with candles – reinforced the impression of a world governed by an obscure but threatening order.
That order became less obscure as the play progressed, and we saw a few rosaries and crucifixes. I don’t deny there’s a powerful strain of anti-Catholicism in The Duchess of Malfi, but bringing out the cowls-and-crucifixes paraphernalia every time becomes a bit wearing. If The Da Vinci Code accomplished anything, it was to show how dumb Anglo-Protestant no-Popery frothing looks when stripped down to its essentials, and frankly it doesn’t become more intellectually credible when it’s used as set dressing on the London stage. You don’t have to hold any brief for Catholicism (let alone the Vatican) to wonder whether the gothic trappings trotted out in Malfi productions have more in common with the sectarian riots and minority-baiting which stained a lot of British history than they do with the free-thinking anti-clericalism tradition of Voltaire. Actually the Old Vic went fairly light on using Catholicism to give its audience a cheap frisson – none of what one scholar of Early Modern drama has called “the usual crucifix and sodomy stuff” – but the incense and cowled figures which infested the stage from time to time could have wandered out of any Victorian gothic novel clutching its smelling salts and panting about sinister Continentals.
Eve Best played the Duchess as a woman in sight of middle age, sure of her own desires but uncertain how vulnerable she might become if she revealed them. A self-deprecating laugh kept appearing to assure the men around her that she was sort of joking, to take the edge off her evident need to communicate honestly in an environment stifled with pretence and deception. She didn’t leave out the more formal speeches, but played them hesitantly, like a woman trying to find her way round the role of Duchess. We saw flashes of her in other roles which seemed to suit this Duchess better: as a lover wryly aware of the gap in emotional maturity between herself and the man she nonetheless adored, as the sister who slapped Duke Ferdinand’s face when he insulted her too far, or as the friend and supporter of her waiting woman Cariola. (This last came out notably in the Duchess’ last orders to Cariola. The line – an instruction to give her son some cough medicine and see her daughter says her prayers – are usually read as underlining the Duchess’ maternal instincts, but Best played them as a task suddenly invented to distract Cariola and stop her realizing that she will be murdered too as soon as the Duchess is dead.)
Antonio, the Duchess’ younger husband, was played puzzlingly by Tom Bateman. Either Bateman hadn’t got the hang of the acoustics of the Old Vic, or he had decided Antonio would make most sense as an over-grown schoolboy with an emotional range between “good-chap-hearty-stuff” and “doom-has-come-upon-me”. Either way any nuance in the character was drowned in the shouting and flinging himself around Gilmour’s set. The Duchess’ murderous brothers were a suitably ill-matched pair, though Finbar Lynch’s ruthless Cardinal was more successful than Harry Lloyd’s rather querulous and over-done Duke Ferdinand. Mark Bonnar took on Bosola, which has been regarded as the play’s male lead for about the last hundred years. This sardonic spy, who was once a brilliant philosophy student before poverty led him to become a hitman for the Cardinal, has an easy appeal for the post-Pulp Fiction theatre. Bonnar really filled the role, holding the audience from the start, and was the only person on stage who could alienate their sympathy from the Duchess at any point. Despite some excellent supporting performance – such as Iris Roberts’ Julia and Madeline Appiah’s Cariola – the production was an intricate struggle between these two, both desperate, both emotionally hungry and both hating the role life had cast them in.
 There have been enough “What’s with all the Duchess of Malfis?” articles, that I wondered last year whether it might be worth trying a “What’s with all the ‘What’s with all the Duchess of Malfis?’ articles?” article. And as soon as I can be sure we’ve punctuated the title correctly, I might have a go.
 Deny it? I can bore about it for hours, particularly if you consider the anti-Spanish feeling in London at the time of the play’s first printing in 1623 …