“Mine eyes dazzle.” That’s the great line uttered by incestuous Ferdinand (vicious Harry Lloyd) as he discovers himself shedding tears over the body of his sister whose murder he ordered. It could equally describe the reaction to the visual splendor and sheer craft of Jamie Lloyd’s ferocious production of John Webster’s bloodstained 1613 tragedy “The Duchess of Malfi.” A traditional presentation but with none of the stuffiness that description might imply, the production is unusually direct thanks to dynamic performances from a cast led by Eve Best on the exhilarating attack.
She’s the eponymous Duchess, recently widowed, who against her brother Ferdinand’s wishes marries in secret. Worse, she marries her steward Antonio (Tom Bateman). Ferdinand’s hired hand Bosola (swarthy Mark Bonnar, swimming in bitterness) spies on her with relish until, finally, he uncovers Antonio’s identity.
Matters turns ever darker as Ferdinand’s lust-fuelled disgust drives events into the kind of blood-curdling excess that predates Tarantino by almost four hundred years and made Jacobean tragedy famous. But as the play proceeds, it becomes clear that Webster was considerably less good at constructing a dramatic narrative structure. Scenes of whoredom and horror are paradoxically lit up by flashes of poetry but the play undeniably unravels in the final third.
To combat that, Lloyd uses every element of stagecraft to create an engrossing vision of a court steeped in corruption. A threatening bass rumble chills the air, white back-lighting scalds the arches of Soutra Gilmour’s haze-filled, gilded but empty palace, and Best’s masked Duchess shimmers into view. Her slow entrance, in menacing rhythm with the swaying of cloaked courtiers, threatens to create a meditative pace — at which point lighting designer James Farncombe slams up the light, Best rips off her mask with a piercing laugh and everything bursts into life.
Momentum is key. Even the most poetic lines are never allowed to hang illustratively upon the air. It’s not just Ann Yee’s movement work that’s animated, it’s the text itself which is either shot like arrows at other characters or directly at the audience. That’s combined with a swiftness of thought that, paradoxically, makes the ideas and language more rather than less legible.
Best’s vital interpretation of a woman trapped is as high-spirited as it is necessarily high-status. Her character’s mind races, and Best keeps the audience close by forcing them to keep up with her. That connection buys her time with the result that her silent, upsetting moments of emotional realization ring out with unusual strength.
Lloyd’s trimmed text delivers all the play’s horrific set-pieces and high body count. To his immense credit, however, he unfashionably refuses to deliver a thrill-ride; instead he’s intent on delivering a more morally responsible vision. His staging of the duchess’s murder by strangulation takes a horribly long time, leaving no doubt about the appalling nature of the act.
Although Bonnar’s dogged delivery of blunt Bosola cleverly sets him apart from the courtly machinations that engulf everyone, in the final scenes he risks overkill because the writing carries considerably less tension. Yet even towards the end the production pulls out surprises, not least the clarity of Iris Roberts as conniving Julia, mistress of Finbar Lynch’s hypocrisy-drenched cardinal. Her zesty performance is typical of a company ideally in sync with a first-rate production.