Cooper’s London

Old Vic:
Eve Is the Best Duchess Ever

There are two reasons not to miss the production of John Webster’s Jacobean gore-fest, The Duchess of Malfi. One is the astonishingly sensitive, moving and complex portrayal of the Duchess by Eve Best. She conveys a character whose charm, sensuality, and capacity for loving is so real that you ache for her as you watch her steam-rollered by circumstances and her profoundly evil brothers. After the history of the twentieth century – or even the story of the last few weeks in Syria – this nastiness is far more believable and real than it must have seemed to people in the previous three hundred years – and that is the second reason for seeing this production of a brilliant, poetic and unfortunately prescient drama.

The character of the Duchess of Malfi is the pivot of the story. The crux of the tale, though, revolves around Bosola. He’s just good enough to have some conscience but he’s self-serving; so he colludes with the corrupt tyrants who run things, thus both damning himself spiritually and becoming the agent of their evil purposes. Jamie Lloyd’s production is all the stronger for not dressing everyone up in Nazi or Fascist uniforms, and for making you work out the parallels for yourself. But he does make explicit the bloodiness of the period and its relation to the 21st century. 

I had a couple of quibbles, but the momentary blip of this or that line being a bit off-target could also be the vagaries of live performance. Essentially this is a beautifully worked ensemble piece in which all the actors certainly know what they are doing and whom they are supposed to be. Mark Bonar’s Bosola is a Common Man who never questions the corrupt prevailing views about class and power until it is way too late–like the people who were “just following orders” in all those recent genocidal regimes of recent decades.  Tom Bateman is a slightly Toy Boy object for the Duchess’s affections, but he also has a winning innocenceand great warmth in their love scenes; and he is very appealing towards the end when he simply cannot accept how evil his brother-in-law the Cardinal is, and still hopes for a reconciliation. They choose not to go public with their love, their marriage and their children until they are discovered, but they are also in a kind of denial about the decadence of the society surrounding them.   

The dichotomy between those who have a more normal and moral view of the world and who are seen, at moments of contrast, to even enjoy life – and those who are killers–is starkly presented in the second half of the play when the Duchess becomes almost an icon of probity. Eve Best conveys all the facets of the Duchess’ personality and of her continuously disintegrating situation in a luminous performance. Her sense of pleasure in her new-found love, her pleasure in life and in her children, and her goodness are perfectly in balance against the roiling darkness and evil that surround and eventually overwhelm her. The dignity, strength and refusal of the Duchess to crumble, in the face of the betrayals, torture and humiliations she suffers are unforgettable and grippingly powerful as the play darkens and as her brothers (Harry Lloyd as Ferdinand and Finbar Lynch as the Cardinal, both excellent) become obsessively more mad and vengeful.  Attractively designed and costumed, the evening is a strong  validation of the belief that this play is a masterpiece. 

Eve Best adds another strong interpretation to a gallery of heroines that now includes her Hedda Gabler, Lavinia Mannon in Mourning Becomes Electra, the domineering and vulnerable Josie in A Moon for the Misbegotten, and a brilliant Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.  Perhaps best known for her role as Eleanor O’Hara MD in Nurse Jackie on television, she proves once again that she is a great stage actress whose live appearances are to be treasured and, if at all possible, are not to be missed. 

The Duchess of Malfi plays at the Old Vic, London, until 9 June 2012.

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