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.
Upon it’s premier at the Abbey theatre in Dublin in 1907, John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World was opened to riots owing to its perceived derisive and libelous perception of Irish people and was described as a ‘vile and inhuman story told in the vilest language ever listened to in a public forum’ with some authors calling for Synge to be killed. Nowadays, a reaction like that would undoubtedly fill the theatre to capacity with every attendee wanting to see what would cause such a vociferous response.
This play certainly does not pack the socially divisive punch of its 1907 premier but within the beautifully crafted and mellifluous words, therein lies a dark heart.
The production, currently at the Old Vic and directed by John Crowley, centres on the character of Christy Mohan, played by the impish Robert Sheehan who you may well be familiar with if you’ve had the opportunity to see channel 4’s angst-ridden-teen-superhero-drama-cum-comedy Misfits.
Sheehan’s Christy wanders meekly into a local tavern, and tells a tall-tale of murdering his father. This disingenuous story of patricide immediately transforms the cowardly Mohan in to a local celebrity and the object of affection from some of the local women. He takes a particular shine to Pegeen, played with sternness and vigour by Ruth Negga and charms his way, on the basis of his new-found tough reputation, to obtaining a job at the very tavern Pegeen earns her keep as a bar maid.
Christy, to the amusement of the audience, indulges in his new found fame by desperately trying to embody the gallant and murderous playboy by retelling ad nauseum, how the scene of his father’s murder played out, and subsequently impressing a bevy of young women much to the irritation of Pegeen.
Sheehan’s performance as the eponymous playboy is accomplished and at times very funny. He has a great, lank physicality that he uses to comedy effect as he portrays an idealised version of himself. His charm in deceit was worked to hilarious affect as he tries to cling to his fabrication and the characters around him become totally bewitched until a significant plot development seeks to scupper his plans.
This was however, far from being a perfect production. There were occasions, perhaps owing to my ominously early onset of depleted hearing, where I missed tracts of speech which was mainly owing to my ears taking a while to adapt to the rhythm and thickness of the Irish accent. I was also a little disappointed that the play’s dark theme of a young man lying about the murder of his own father and consequently becoming a local pariah and hero was not explored through Christy’s character. Christy undergoes a significant transformation and the climax is really meant to bring home the dramatic transition and embittered maturity of his character. The tone however remained the same; jovial and light, entertaining but, and I am reluctant to say this, largely forgettable.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the performance; the stagecraft was excellent and the language was of a beauty that was at times worthy of comparison with Shakespeare. But this is not a performance that will linger around in the memory for very long, which is saddening given the strength of the material.
The Playboy of the Western World runs until 26th November
Cause Celebre, Terence Rattigan’s final play, makes one glad not to be struggling through his rumour obsessed, judgmental portrayal of 1935. This multi-layered play is based on the true story of Alma Rattenbury who, with her 18-year-old lover, was accused of murdering her husband and chronicles the subsequent trial. Director Thea Sharrock is joining in the 2011 celebrations of the centenary of Rattigan’s birth, as this Old Vic production is on the heels of her much-lauded and sold-out run of Rattigan’s ‘After the Dance’ at the National.
One quickly becomes immersed in this world of the two lead opposing characters; Anne-Marie Duff skillfully portrays the all too likeable Mrs. Rattigan while Niamh Cusack plays the juror, Edith Davenport, who is to decide the widow’s fate. Duffy gives a stunning, multi-leveled performance while Cusack encourages the audience’s sincere sympathy as she goes through life-altering realisations.
The contrast of the public judgment being more precisely aimed at the age gap between the two illicit lovers rather than the actual crime itself raises pertinent questions in today’s media obsessed frenzy. You can’t help but create links between the ever-more salacious stories that newspapers report concerning the trial coupled with the acerbic reactions characters share regarding the accused couple, and the celebrity-crazed daily “rags” of 2011.
Rattigan’s ability to write for women is unquestionable as he so accurately demonstrates the multi-faceted aspects of female relationships. Here you have two women who no longer fulfill sexual expectations of marriage. One looks to a 17-year-old lover while the other chooses the shame of divorce. In the end one’s strict and strident morality saves the other from her own sexual indiscretions. The prisoner wins over her tight-lipped warden, friend turns upon friend when expectations are undermined, and a number of the characters were all too quick to pass judgment. However the two female leads are disappointing in their frailties and one can’t help but wish for more gumption.
Despite the successful posing of grand moral questions, the play itself has niggling flaws and dialogue that waffles. It felt, at times, that the adept performances were simply too big for the script that at times meandered and lost focus. The numerous tangential story lines of lawyers and offspring seem to contribute little to nothing towards the main plot. The staging was excellent in its subtlety and fluidity. Layers in the set successfully conveyed layers in the story. The haunting appearance at the end as well as a violent tableau on the stage adeptly demonstrated theatre’s unique qualities against which, when executed expertly as it was in Cause Celebre, no horror film could ever compete. Shivers did truly creep up the spine.
My overall reaction at the end was to ask why Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic continually gives us weak women. Medea could perhaps be next?