After his intellectually audacious Doctor Faustus and his glorious revivification of The Browning Version, actor-turned-director Philip Franks' Greenwich production of John Webster's Jacobean tragedy disappointed many at its unveiling in February. In Wyndham's Theatre it seems more considered and comfortable, but still falls short of greatness.
Juliet Stevenson, seemingly struggling on the press night against a throat infection, chose to overcome it during the first half by booming periodically. The move was out of keeping with her characterisation of the Duchess, for whom the question "Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman/Reign most in her" can have only one answer. This Duchess is much more human than princely: playful, un-aloof and knowing in the opening acts, falling into a grim but far from heroic recognition of her fate at the hands of her pathologically possessive twin brother Ferdinand.
Stevenson can run the gamut of a clutch of emotions in a single reaction. When secretary Antonio believes that she has called him to her chamber to inspect his ledgers rather than to woo him, her pettish bark of "Oh, you are an upright treasurer!" transforms itself into an embarrassed simper as Antonio turns in surprise. This is one of many typical Juliet Stevenson moments in the evening. However, in concentrating on the often painful humanity which is her trademark, she neglects the element of distinction which still belongs to such a tragic heroine. The flaw in the character of the Duchess is fatally magnified by a similar flaw in Stevenson's performance.
As Ferdinand, Simon Russell Beale presents another of his gifted studies in self-conscious, horrified loathing. He gives himself over to incestuous jealousy, imagining his sister in "the act of sin... Happily with some [momentary pause as he barely retains self-control] strong-thigh'd bargeman", and frothing so much that his brother Cardinal's line "I'll leave you" becomes an irked parent's threat to a child in mid-tantrum. Beale's melancholy lycanthropia reminds us that Angela Carter's line about some wolves being hairy on the inside derives directly from this play.
Ferdinand continues, in this transfer, partially to usurp the dramatic focus from the Duchess. The most notable and welcome change has come in Robert Glenister's portrayal of the malcontent Bosola. Although still quick of tongue, Glenister no longer gabbles Bosola's misanthropic outbursts; on the contrary, he now clearly evinces the character's underlying sense of honour and scruple, so that Bosola's final misguided attempts to right his earlier wrongs no longer seem like bald narrative twists. In the context of Franks' production, Bosola is now the moral fulcrum.
Tom Piper's set and Howard Harrison's lighting design become more impressive on the Wyndham's stage than at Greenwich, assaulting the audience with their stark penal imagery in Act Four as Ferdinand stands high above the Duchess's dungeon, trying in vain to remain unmoved by his persecution of her. Against this, Franks' repeated use of taped bursts of whispering susurration is at best unnecessary, at worst irritating. The play is an odd, though welcome, choice for a West End transfer, but fails to live up to the sombre glories of expectation.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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