- The Duchess of Malfi
The Old Vic mounted this much-needed major revival of Webster’s play using a lavish visual design, an impressive soundscape, and the commercial asset of casting Eve Best in the title role. This combination of factors, however, did not guarantee the success of a venture that was ultimately disappointing, mainly due to Jamie Lloyd’s unconvincing direction.
Soutra Gilmour’s stunning set remained unchanged for the duration of the show. The wings and back wall, replicating the rough dark bricks of the backstage area, enclosed a large structure of dark gold columns and staircases supporting a set of galleries at three levels, decreasing vertically in width. The columns were broken at the very top, so that the whole set had the shape of a truncated cone. The lower gallery was supported by a pair of columns center stage that, when curtained, served as a discovery space for some of the scenes: the arras behind which Antonio and Cariola hid, and where the wax figures of the dead Antonio and his son were revealed. At the back of the stage there was a large set of double doors; a huge paned window stage right completed the set. The stage was slightly extended beyond the proscenium arch with a short apron protruding into the auditorium, and was slightly raked. In the program, Assistant Director Simon Evans appropriately described it as “an atmospheric and skeletal mesh of spires and beams in which spies and shadows can vie for space.”
Before the start of the show, electric candles were lit at the sides of the galleries, and a strong scent of incense filled the auditorium. A man, Bosola, appeared on the lower gallery, while the rest of the company came on the main stage wearing masks and carrying candles, performing a slow period dance. The text was re-structured to have Bosola and the [End Page 653] Cardinal start the play (“I do haunt you still”), interpolating the opening dialogue between Antonio and Delio at a slightly later stage, after which they commented on the characters from the gallery over an ominous ostinato. The candles, the incense, the Renaissance costumes, the music, and the choreographed movement gave the impression that this was a highly ritualistic Catholic court. The appearance of the Duchess was delayed until the stage was cleared after Bosola’s conversation with the Cardinal, at which point Antonio returned with Delio, drinking and joking, describing to him the wonders of the Duchess’s speech. The doors at the back of the stage opened, showing the Duchess’s silhouette against a halo of white light. She entered accompanied by more masked figures carrying candles.
Despite her powerful stage presence and skilled command of the audience, constantly and effectively breaking the fourth wall, Eve Best proved to be an uneven Duchess. She was warm and charming in her loving intimacy with Antonio during their playful wooing in 1.1 and the unusually tender bedchamber scene (3.2), but emotionally detached when she was shown the wax figures of her supposedly dead husband and child (4.1). It was difficult to see the continuity of the character here, as one would assume that the loss of her eldest son and her beloved Antonio would provoke a more poignant reaction; but Best just turned her back on the horrific vision. In that scene, however, the audience witnessed one of the strongest moments in the production: when the Duchess said “Take hence the lights” Ferdinand delivered Antonio’s supposed severed hand to her...