THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
Oxford Playhouse/touring
Opened ?? October, 1995

Cheek By Jowl have billed The Duchess Of Malfi as "a horror tragedy", but the horror evoked by Declan Donnellan's production is the gloomy but unfrightening kind typified by 1960s sinister-family movies in which Bette Davis always seemed to play the grandmother hidden from general view.

To be sure, Anastasia Hille as the Duchess does a lot of Davis-style smoking onstage, and establishes herself as the strongest member of her family, with a fiercer will even than Paul Brennen's Herr Flick-like Cardinal. In every physical conflict with her twin brother Ferdinand she bests him, twice disarming him of his dagger. She does not so much seduce her steward Antonio into marriage as entrap him, retaining her glacial poise throughout the play. She comes over less as a woman whose passions prove her undoing than as a younger Queen Mary of Teck.

The production as a whole is virtually devoid of passion of any kind, be it the Duchess's love, Ferdinand's incestuous jealousy or the grand Guignol psychological tortures of her imprisonment with a mob of madmen. Darkness is all; Nick Ormerod's set is spare but for a set of heavy black drapes, and Judith Greenwood's lighting design contrives to create an impression of coldness even when bathing characters in gold. All hints of real affection in the Duchess's crucial bedchamber scene with Antonio have been rigorously expunged. The effect is to unbalance Webster's play, in which shadows are primarily called into being by an excess of emotion. Donnellan gives us only the shadow.

In the strangest character decision of the evening, George Anton plays the malcontent Bosola not as a man firm in his own splenetic morality but as a cringeing, fawning coward. This weakens Bosola's cynical commentaries upon immediate events and human nature, which are further attenuated by Anton's unnatural delivery. Scott Handy finds a certain consistency in his portrayal of Ferdinand; rather than brooding openly upon his sister, this Ferdinand is an immature young man who seems unaware of his own obsession.

Cuts and rewrites ensure that the darkness presented is that of the director rather than the author. When Ferdinand falls mad, virtually all references to lycanthropy are removed. The madmen who torment the imprisoned Duchess do not gibber as scripted, but enact a mute masque of her downfall, as if Ferdinand had taken a leaf out of Prince Hamlet's book and instructed them to lay their own "Mousetrap"; if so, the mouse is not caught Hille's Duchess shows no sign of recognition.

Where Webster's characters hurtle through a maelstrom of catastrophe, merely "the stars' tennis balls" (another observation of Bosola's which has been excised), Donnellan's move through a cold, inescapable void, despite the attempt to superimpose a religious element by repeated liturgical chanting. The lack of connection culminates in Act Five, in which Antonio's and Bosola's stabbings are staged without any physical contact whatever; the respective murderers lunge, several feet away and not even facing their victims. Their deaths (followed by the inevitable Kyrie) bring to an end a reading of the play which fails either to harrow or to satisfy.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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