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May 29, 2014 9:28 am

The Mysterious Mr Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

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Gemma Arterton as the Duchess of Malfi©Mark Douet

Gemma Arterton as the Duchess of Malfi

Rather perversely, BBC2’s The Mysterious Mr Webster (Saturday, 7pm) is more enjoyable than BBC4’s The Duchess of Malfi (Sunday, 8pm), which it is meant to preface. Webster is presented by James Shapiro, one of those passionate American academics whose enthusiasm for our culture would be gratifying if it didn’t shame our own ignorance. He sketches the career of the shadowy Jacobean dramatist “much possessed by death” (Eliot), and introduces us to the beautiful new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe where Webster’s most famous tragedy is performed by candlelight, with authentic music, as it might have been in 1614 for the indoor theatre playgoers drawn from the middle and upper classes; a more exclusive and expensive experience than jostling the groundlings in the open air.

Dominic Dromgoole’s production fascinates, not least through the terror of costumes or panelling igniting (another authentic Jacobean touch). One actor describes Webster’s tragedy of forbidden love, vengeful pride, hinted-at incest and general schlock tactics as Tarantino fare.

The visual pleasure afforded by this intimate oaken casket of an auditorium is let down by erratic acting. Gemma Arterton’s Duchess is dignified and touching, both human and aristocratic, but David Dawson (her slowly maddened brother) and Denise Gough (every inch a Renaissance adulteress on the make) alone show the superb high style, already half-damned and doomed, that brings out the language’s black gleam as sardonic Jacobean cynicism ushers them towards hell.

Alas for the most glaring gap: the treacherous henchman Bosola, all bitter self-knowledge, is a creature made up partly of mockery, partly of malign destructiveness. Here the actor shows neither. Compare Fargo and Billy Bob Thornton’s Malvo – even the name suggests a Jacobean Machiavel – for the perfect blend of evil and humour.


The Mysterious Mr Webster


The Duchess of Malfi

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