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.
The Summer House is an engaging and amusing conflation of Nordic mythology and a disastrous stag-do.
The main focus is on the experiences of three men attempting to execute the traditional, or perhaps clichéd, wild stag party weekend away. Scenes of Nordic Gods and honourable Vikings are interwoven between the chaotic moments of the stag party to reflect and consequently punctuate whatever manly issue is being addressed by the trio. It is this acknowledgement of the conundrums surrounding social
status and perceived masculinity that rescues The Summer House from descending into an overtly masculine farce reminiscent of a Nordic ‘Hangover’. These glimmers of substance and amusing juxtapositions of the quandaries of the stags, with portrayals of the equally flawed and insecure Norse Gods make The Summer House astute, as well as chuckle inducing.
Neil Haigh’s performance as troubled Neil, whose summer house the men are staying in, is understated and convincing. Similarly, Matthew Steer’s depiction of the meticulously organised, anxious Best Man Matthew is also thoroughly entertaining and believable, and at points quite subtle. The stag, Will, played by Will Adamsdale, was perhaps the least palatable as his character was almost excessively slapstick. Also, at points Adamsdale’s performance felt like a semi-professional actor (with a contrived booming semi-professional actor voice)playing Will, rather than Will Adamsdale being Will.
The set and use of props were clever – though quite typical of many contemporary plays – with a sparse set design (the stage was on two levels and contained a sofa and three chairs) and a creative use of everyday objects. One of the cleverest uses of the banal was cling film as it is used to depict; cloaks, mountains, water and a hot tub cover…! However, the most inspired element of the stage and prop design was a miniature version of the summerhouse that the men are staying in: literally, a tiny wooden summer house. The diminutive representation is positioned at the front of the stage and whatever is occurring on the actual stage is echoed, only smaller. It is brilliant. It provides comedic value but also enhances some scenes of the play that are more challenging to convey on a limited set. The use of sound supports the visual aspect of the production almost to the extent of being pedantic, with each splosh of the hot tub, but nevertheless adds authenticity and comedy which are the main merits of the performance.
The script, a collaboration by Adamsdale, Haigh and Steer is realistic and amusing. This is aside of course from the scenes based in Scandinavian history to which alas, my expertise in masculine lexical choices does not extend.
In short, this production is worth watching as a comedy with a self-conscious centre as it rigorously and humorously examines man.
Holly Darling Freeman
Love Song – such a whimsical title. It is clear from the second scene of this Frantic Assembly that this is indeed the aim of the author Abi Morgan – to compose a theatrical love song of sorts to unfold upon the stage.
We start at the end and simultaneously the beginning. Two couples enact this tale of the story of Maggie and Billy, both in its youth and old age; an interesting concept. The stage is covered in autumnal fallen leaves –suggesting that the real emphasis lies in the winter of this relationship, rather than the hoped for spring.
The young couple (Edward Bennett and Leanne Rowe) move to America to further his dental career. She, after losing the hope of bearing children, finds her self with little to occupy her time and so becomes a librarian. It is a typical tale of 1950’s middle class couples. There are arguments, money troubles, fidelity issues, conception obstacles, and the inevitable challenges that arise with old age (Sam Cox and Sian Phillips). So here we are, presented with two ends of the spectrum and rather than an array of colours in between, all that I could see was grey.
This tale of the childless couple getting by with just each other has been told before. In order to make this at times extremely touching story fly, the author needed to incorporate depth, personality, passion. Yet none of that comes through in this production. Frantic Assembly focus on movement in their productions and you can see that here, movement plays an important roll in the telling of this story. It is excellently staged and the stories intertwine seamlessly, yet much like the attempted choreographed dance interludes, the telling of this worn out tale is lifeless. Even Maggie’s chosen last moments lacked any conviction. I remained unmoved.
Many of the choreographed staging moments should have been cut by directors Scott Graham and Steve Hoggett who really should know better. The multi-media back panelling added little to the stagnant set.
By the end of “Love Song” I had lost interest. There was a distinct lack of substance to these characters. I longed for texture and depth, the stuff that any good love song is comprised of. However, this lacklustre love song was markedly missing the all important verses, in the end being incapable of moving beyond the redundant the chorus.
Lovesong is on until 4 February at the Lyric Hammersmith. Click here to book tickets or call 0871 221 172