The Duchess of Malfi
Old Vic, London
5th May 2012
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
Let’s start with the programme for a change. It’s an example of how programmes should be. The four essays tell you what you need to know. First the Assistant Director Simon Evans explains the rehearsal process and the intentions of this production. Then we have an essay on Jacobean tragedy, and an essay on Webster, and a detailed essay on the historical events and characters, and the sources Webster and others used to find the story. This replaces the plot synopsis, but because the story closely follows history, it serves in its place. The story was known in England from William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, first publishedin 1567. This compilation of tales about Italy was mined by Shakespeare, among others.
There was a real Duchess of (A)malfi, who was murdered on the order of her two brothers, because she had secretly married her steward, Antonio Bologna, and had two children by him. The three siblings were all members of the Aragon family, so minor Spanish royalty, ruling the Kingdom of Naples and Italian duchies. The real Duchess fled to Ancona in 1510, escaping her brothers’ wrath. She was following Antonio, and had a third child there. She was captured when fleeing to Forli in 1511 and never seen again. Antonio was murdered in Milan in 1513 by Daniele da Bozzolo (Bosola in the play). It’s believed the ‘hit’ was ordered by the older brother, the Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona. The end of the essay gives a ‘tantalising insight’. Webster knew the real Cardinal had a mistress called Julia, which is true, but which none of the contemporary sources reveal. So Webster must have had a further source that is now lost (or brilliant intuition). Webster makes Bosola the main male character, running right through the play. He has just returned from seven years as a galley slave, a sentence for a murder. Webster has the three children born before the brothers discover the Duchess’s secret marriage to a commoner, which is often held as a time flaw. Communication from Amalfi along the precipitous mountain road might have been slow, but not that slow, and Naples where the historical Ferdinand lived is only twenty miles away. The 16th century sources and Webster may have been confused because the historical Duchess was a widow who had two children already when she met Antonio. It might be that the ‘third’ child born in Ancona was the first with Antonio. Anyway, not in the play.
The aim of this production is set out in the first essay. Jamie Lloyd wanted to give full weight to the language in Webster’s play, and he succeeds with great clarity of delivery and interpretation. There are cuts, particularly ‘bad pun’ cuts which I wish directors would do more often in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. The essay also says the rehearsals had a ‘mood board’ to which was pinned increasing numbers of 2012 stories about honour killings around the world. I hate the term ‘honour killing’ because ‘killing’ is a weaker word than ‘murder.’ Who shoved the word ‘killing’ on these events? The other strong collocation is ‘mercy killing’ which is, to some, an act of kindness. To call it an ‘honour killing’ sounds like some Advanced-Politically Correct dilution of fact. You don’t get honour “killings” in deepest Dorset. The term should be honour murder. The play is about an honour murder. The perpetrators are the usual suspects: the brothers. What sort of ‘honour’ does someone murdering a sister or daughter or niece have to protect in the first place? There’s a foul streak of incestuous lust from the brother Ferdinand. An interesting point about the murders in this play is that it’s women and children first. The Duchess is the first to go, horribly and slowly strangled here, stage centre in front of us, incredibly realistically too. She faces death with courage, in a particularly poignant touch begging her maid to see that her son has syrup for his cough, and her daughter says her prayers. It’s the females who need prayers, because the maid is next (get rid of the witness) and her contrasting death is begging for mercy on the grounds she hasn’t confessed, is pregnant … anything. It doesn’t work. Then the murderers are dispatched to the two younger children (Antonio took the oldest with him when he fled). The third adult murder is the Cardinal’s mistress, Julia. So all the women in the play have been murdered before we even start on the men. This is a significant part of the plot. By the end, all four main male parts are dead. Antonio is murdered by Bosola who thinks he’s killing the cardinal. Bosola has had a change of heart. Then the other three fall upon each other in turn.
The Duchess arrives
The Old Vic set is wiry, metallic, golden. It reachs to the rafters of the Old Vic stage, with two widely separated levels of catwalk high above the stage, so that the whole disappears into a mist. They’re used … Ferdinand can survey the actions he’s ordered from on high. The beginning has the cast dressed in monks’ habits in a ghostly pavane holding candles aloft. This dance movement is used several times in the first half, so much so that you miss it in the second half.
Among the judicious cuts in the production is Webster’s beginning. We start with Bosola (Mark Bonnar), barefoot, rugged, Scottish accented (which helps separate him as an outsider: the agent / angel of death), dressed in the decaying clothes of an early 17th century mercenary soldier. Bosola takes us from beginning to the end. Action is through him, and he’s the only character who experiences a change in himself as the play progresses. It’s a powerful performance in a powerful role.
The Duchess with Antonio
We’re a good way in to the plot before the Duchess (Eve Best) bursts through the doors in a halo of light, dressed all in white . She exudes life force against the dourly dressed men. She’s a vivacious merry widow. She and Antonio (Tom Bateman) are an immediately attractive couple. He’s tall and handsome in contrast to the weasely brothers. There’s a lot of (fully-clothed) sex in the play. In the impassioned bedroom scene (we know Ferdinand is due to arrive, the lovers don’t), what struck me was the presence of the maid, Cariola, chatting away. Yes, those old castles were pretty open plan (hence the four-poster beds) and the personal servant knew their mistress or master’s most intimate business. But it did make me ponder. So if Prince Charles has someone to put his toothpaste on his toothbrush, so …
The Duchess with Ferdinand
One review pointed out that the brothers, Ferdinand (Harry Lloyd) and the Cardinal (Finbar Lynch) were slight of stature for their powerful roles in the murder. After all, this is one of the plays where we have a King’s Men cast list from 1613, and Richard Burbage played Ferdinand. As he is assumed to have played Falstaff, Othello, Richard III and King Lear we can guess that he had a major physical presence. I think the stature was a deliberate choice at the Old Vic. These are modern tyrants. While the early medieval tyrant was a brawny bloke with a hefty broadsword who could impose his will personally, these guys have people, i.e. Bosola, to do the dirty work for them.
The cardinal in bed
Or they use poison. The cardinal’s a cold fish, even after appearing on a bed having sex (girl on top) with Julia. His character caused the Venetian ambassador to England to complain in 1618 about anti-Catholic sentiments (a clear indication that the play was popular enough to be revived five years after its original two runs), but this is the Italy of the Borgias who spawned two popes. Pope Alexander VI died in 1503, a few years before the original story. He was also related by marriage to the original Aragonese brothers. Lucrezia Borgia was married to an Aragon prince. Alexander VI was into adultery, rape, incest, theft and murder. The poison hidden in a bible that someone has to kiss was standard procedure. This is how the cardinal murders his mistress, Julia, in the play. Ferdinand is an incestous perve with a violent streak. His motivation is as much sexual jealousy, as the family ‘honour’ or annoyance that he can’t marry his sister off for political advantage. He’s happy to jump on his sister dagger at her throat, then breast (of course), but otherwise you bring in a thug like Bosola for the slaughtering. I found both brothers quite sufficiently nasty.
At the beginning of the second half, Ferdinand and the Duchess play a scene in darkness. The play was first performed in the Blackfriars private theatre indoors, then played at the open-air Globe a year later. Darkness would have been impossible in the public theatres in daylight in the Jacobean era. It’s theatrically risky, even today. Ferdinand has her kiss his hand in the dark, it’s cold because it’s the severed hand of Antonio, she is led to believe, then the arras is thrown aside to reveal the bloody corpses of Antonio and their son, hanging. It’s Ferdinand’s trick. As he says to the audience, they are but ‘feigned statues’ made of wax. The King’s Men listed ‘dummies’ among their properties, but feigned statues were popular in plays so possibly they had some practised statue mimes among the company of the King’s Men. I wondered because we wandered the South Bank before the play. All the superb statue mimes of recent years had gone, replaced by people vaguely dressed as statue mimes, but moving around, or just in cheap, vague fancy dress, begging. None of them were conversing with their fellows in English either. Pity. A small local art form for penniless drama students had gone, driven out by crap imitators. Let’s have an Arts Council grant for the real feigned statues of the South Bank.
An intrinsic problem of the play, is Webster’s deliberate choice of murdering all the women first. It leaves us without Duchess a long way before the end, and the electricity of her presence is sorely missed. The second half is the gory, violent half. At the beginning of part one, we can smell the candle wax, we can smell the incense. Fortunately they just used the standard blood capsules in part two. I knew a director who liked to use buckets of blood from the butcher, but I’m sure current hygiene rules wouldn’t allow that. The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts still found it too gory in his negative two star review, but he must be a sensitive soul, because the blood was restrained. What was horrific was the strangulation scenes, particularly the CLICK when Bosola broke Cariola’s neck.
Jacobean tragedy isn’t my normal choice, but this was (at least) a four star production in those terms. Beautifully acted, clear, Webster’s lines stood out, polished and shining. OK, I think Shakespeare would have had more complex characters for the badddies, a sub-plot or three and a welcome touch of comedy to throw yet more light on the violence when it happened, but it’s still an important production of a play with a great deal to say in 2012, particularly on ‘honour murders.’
Malfi / Amalfi
My ELT teacher aside. Because Italy was a collection of independent states for the majority of the last millenium, we have English words for most of the important cities. We say Florence for Firenze, Genoa for Genova, Venice for Venezia, Naples for Napoli, Padua for Padova, Turin for Torino. We have more English versions than we do for France, Spain or Germany. It’s always a question of whether to ‘translate’ or not. I had a holiday in Firenze and Roma sounds pretentious and daft, but It’s on the rail line just here, between Firenze and Roma sounds reasonable, because you’re looking at a map with Italian town names. One that surprised me was before a talk in Livorno, when an Italian academic welcomed me to ‘Leghorn’ which indeed was the English name for Livorno, but not one that’s used enough to be immediately recognizable. I can remember there was a sea Battle of Leghorn (England v Holland, 1653), but I didn’t know that Livorno was the same place. Amalfi is a popular tourist destination near Sorrento (I’ve spoken there too), and it had never struck me as another town with its own English version.