It’s mur­der — es­pe­cially for the au­di­ence

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

The Old Vic, London SE1

IF , L I K E me, y o u r r e f l e x re­sponse to watch­ing a chara c t e r bei ng s t r a ngled t o death is to hold your breath un­til it is all over, then, like me, you are likely to have turned a shade of blue by the time Eve Best’s like­able Duchess of Malfi meets her end. In John Web­ster’s 1613 Ja­cobean tragedy, the duchess falls for a dash­ing courtier, An­to­nio (Tom Bate­man), who is well be­neath her so­cial sta­tus. The af­fair so of­fends her broth­ers — par­tic­u­larly the de­ranged Fer­di­nand (Harry Lloyd) — that she is made to suf­fer in ways that are both cruel and un­usual, Web­ster’s point be­ing that the pun­ish­ment does not fit the “crime”.

Fer­di­nand first has her in­car­cer­ated in a dun­geon, then trans­ported to a lu­natic asy­lum so that her mis­ery is ser­e­naded by the tor­mented cries of the in­sane.

The mad­dest mo­ment of all comes when she is shown the hang­ing, bloody bod­ies of her young son and his fa­ther. They are later re­vealed to be wax ef­fi­gies, a ruse that con­firms her tor­men­tor to be a nut­ter of such bark­ing pro­por­tions that even the mur­der­ous mer­ce­nary Bosola feels squea­mish at his un­remit­ting cru­elty.

Jamie Lloyd’s pro­duc­tion at­tempts to do to Web­ster what his fel­low di­rec­tor Michael Grandage did to a pro­duc­tion of Schiller’s Don Car­los at the Don­mar. That is to say, he swathes the play in mist and pierces the gloomy Ital­ian court of Malfi with shafts of milky light. Soutra Gil­mour’s set is a tow­er­ing lat­tice-work of gothic balco- nies and ram­parts. But the play re­sists Lloyd’s at­tempts to in­ject the kind of thriller pac­ing that pro­pelled Grandage’s pro­duc­tion.

The ques­tion of why Fer­di­nand ob­jects so un­nat­u­rally to his sis­ter’s af­fair is an­swered the mo­ment his rage gives way to an in­ces­tu­ous kiss. We should be grate­ful that Harry Lloyd makes Fer­di­nand so con­vinc­ingly psy­cho­pathic — it in­jects a lit­tle logic into this psy­cho­log­i­cally slip- pery play. But all the stab­bing, garot­ting and car­nage that fol­lows need stronger mo­tives than jeal­ousy and in­cest; stronger even than that de­liv­ered by a por­trait of a so­ci­ety mired in cor­rup­tion.

Yet it would be eas­ier to let the ab­sence of mo­tive slide if the pro­duc­tion had re­mem­bered to make all that bru­tal­ity as hor­ri­fy­ing to those who ex­pe­ri­ence it as it is to the au­di­ence watch­ing it.

As it is, even af­ter Best’s duchess sees her hus­band and son hang­ing from the rafters, she is soon back to her head-girl self, boost­ing her maid’s flag­ging morale with the ex­am­ple of her own sto­icism.

And so, when the cur­tain falls and we can breathe nor­mally again, it is with re­lief that not only has the duchess’s suf­fer­ing fi­nally ceased, but that we have made it to the end of such a grisly play. ( Tel: 0844 8717628)

PHOTO: JO­HAN PERSSON

Eve Best and Tom Bate­man in a rare, non-vi­o­lent mo­ment in the grisly Ja­cobean tragedy

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