In his review of this play's Stratford opening in August, Alastair Macaulay lamented that the RSC's acclaimed season of seldom-seen Elizabethan/Jacobean plays was not set to transfer to London. Thankfully, producers Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt have stepped into the breach, installing Gregory Doran's ensemble and their five diverse offerings at the Gielgud. First out of the traps is the last of the five to open in Stratford, John Marston's 1603 The Malcontent.
The plot synopsis in the programme reads like a parody of the most complex Jacobean revenge tragedy, and in a sense this is what it is: Marston, novelly for the time, wrote a tragi-comedy, which was also intended as a satire on ruling courts rather closer to home than the Genoa of the play. This immediate piquancy having been lost with the passage of time, director Dominic Cooke and designer Robert Innes Hopkins experience few problems transplanting the action to a 1970s Latin American statelet.
Usurping Duke Pietro and his minions are clad in white ceremonial military uniforms; when Pietro is himself unseated by the smoothly pitiless Mendoza, tastes change to black, with big gold epaulets and daft ceremonial marches. The ladies of the court go for swirly retro cocktail dresses and, in the case of Claire Benedict's exuberant bawd, a ludicrous Afro wig. Amidst all this shambles the lank, rank, shapeless bundle of bile that is Malevole: a more misanthropic version of the licensed fool, he is permitted to rail at individuals and state alike, with an inventive line in insults such as "hot-reined he-marmoset". Then, in soliloquy, Malevole whips off his wig and shades to reveal himself as the true Duke, Altofronto, whose plan of pricking the supplanters' consciences gathers pace and form as events progress.
As Malevole, Antony Sher is at the marvellous peak of his playfulness, yet combines this with masterly attention to the play's ebb and flow; he is always in the service of the piece, never over the top. Joe Dixon's Mendoza is unshakable in his self-regarding callousness, sucking on an obviously Freudian (or indeed Clintonian) cigar whilst suavely plotting murder after attempted murder: at one point Malevole and the now deposed and disguised Pietro reveal that each has been commissioned by Mendoza to poison the other. Colin McCormack's Pietro is on the unobtrusive side as usurpers go, but then he certainly has a hell of a lot of competition, not least from Amanda Drew as his libidinous wife.
Part of the negativity surrounding the RSC in the latter days of Adrian Noble's tenure at the helm was apprehension as to how the company's post-Barbican, peripatetic, "as and when" approach to London presentations would work. The evidence hitherto has been patchy, but Doran's season looks like being the kind of project to give hope to the strategy, now that it has got here after all.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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