The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic, London

Director Jamie Lloyd begins his revival with a sinister, dimly lit procession of masked and cowled figures across Soutra Gilmour’s skew-whiff gilt cathedral set. It looks a little like the central sequence of Eyes Wide Shut, or a sinister parody of the musical interludes Lloyd has inserted into his production of She Stoops To Conquer, now in rep at the National Theatre. But the comparison does not hold: in the Goldsmith production, the director maximises the comedy at every opportunity, whereas in the case of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy he seems unwilling, with this sole exception, to go any further than the script, or even that far.

The emotional and psychological tone of the production meshes well with the visual aspect, but it is the feel that needs to dictate the look. Snow falls onstage for much of the second half, but this should not be a cold play. Webster was perhaps the most willing of his contemporaries to take the risk of toppling his grotesque tragedy over into black comedy; this play contains a severed hand, a chorus of lunatics and a case of lycanthropy, as well as the grim yet odd observation that “We are merely the stars’ tennis balls.” Lloyd and his cast never take the chance that we might laugh for the wrong reason.

Eve Best in the title role only gets up to her usual acting speed after the interval, when the Duchess has been imprisoned by her brothers and loses some of her self-possession; her Act One seduction of her steward Antonio (Tom Bateman), for instance, shows little erotic charge. As the villainous brothers, Finbar Lynch sports a rather pervy leather gauntlet after a road accident, which adds to the severity of the Cardinal’s aspect; yet Harry Lloyd as Ferdinand shows few of the signs of madness before it descends upon him, and limits the disturbing indications of incestuous lust for his sister (usually a mainstay of this character’s portrayal) to a single brief kiss. Only Mark Bonnar excels unreservedly as the malcontent Bosola, railing at men and fates alike as he finds himself entangled in others’ machinations. It all makes for an evening not nearly as unsettling as it should be.

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