In the poem ‘Whispers of Immortality’, TS Elliot says of the playwright John Webster, ’Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin’. This rather pertinent couplet offers a microcosmic view of what to expect from the work of Webster. He was a man obsessed by the darker faculties of the human condition. Perhaps his most famous play, The Duchess of Malfi, has been revived at the Old Vic by director Jamie Lloyd, whose most recent output was the brilliant Faith Machine at the Royal Court.
This Jacobean tragedy takes place in the court of Amalfi and is set upon a beautifully ornate backdrop of a labyrinth of intricately patterned walkways- a perfect place for a pernicious intelligencer to go unnoticed. The story centres on the eponymous Duchess, a recent widow, who has two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, who want a significant part of her inheritance and are loath to allow her to marry again.
In order to prevent this from happening, Ferdinand hires Bosola, an intelligencer and former servant to the Cardinal, to spy on the Duchess and report back in the event of anything suspicious occurring. The fate of the Duchess takes an ominous turn when she falls in love with Antonio, a lowly steward, and embarks on a secret relationship with him, trying her utmost to keep her secret away from her psychopathic brothers.
The emotionally demanding role of the Duchess is delicately portrayed by actress Eve Best, most noted for her roles in The Kings Speech and American TV drama, Nurse Jackie. She is but the innocent party in a bevy of wolves that are made manifest by her brothers.
Ferdinand’s descent in to madness is also brilliantly realised by actor Jamie Lloyd with his rodent like features and slick black hair, he gives off the air of a deeply disturbed, conflicted and mercurial man, wildly confused in his feelings for his sister- from the very moment he enters stage and before he opens his mouth, you know already that you are watching one of the main villains of the piece.
This production is truly horrific at times as we see the extent people will go in order to get what they want. The contrasting villains of the calculated Cardinal with the hot blooded and belligerent Ferdinand are brilliantly realised as is the conflicted Bosola- even in his darkest moments, there is always a flicker of humanity and remorse for his actions and this makes him a truly fascinating character.
This production comes recommended although I do warn you, it isn’t for the faint hearted! Webster liked to explore the darkness of humanity and The Duchess of Malfi has it in spades.