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The Duchess of Malfi

Let us praise the Red Bull Theater Company.  They specialize in plays "of heightened language," modern and classic, with special attention to the black velvet, blood-spattered Jacobean repertoire of late Shakespeare, Webster, and Middleton.  They exist on a shoestring and they employ very good actors, and their productions are always imaginative and thoughtful.  As is the current production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.

I was looking forward to seeing this production more than somewhat.  I wrote my Masters thesis on Webster and Middleton, and The Duchess of Malfi had a whole chapter to itself, mad-house scene, mad brothers, poisoned book, ghostly echo and all.  I have a dim recollection of having seen it once before, years ago--in London?  In Boston?--but it is not a play that is produced even as often as Middleton's The Changeling, which I think is a weaker play.  Perhaps it is the Grand Guignol of the plot; perhaps it is the thorniness of the language.  Perhaps it is the existential despair of every character except the Duchess, who manages to retain her dignity and her sanity even when surrounded by howling madmen and the knowledge that her brothers would rather see her degraded and dead than happily married.  She dies in hope of Heaven.  The other characters know themselves headed, at best, for Hell, at worst, they know not where.  In any case, it's a play that stands and falls on the dignity of its Duchess, the deliciousness of her villainous brothers, and the subtlety of the most complex character in the play, the veteran soldier Bosola, who discovers repentance too late and much too uselessly.

There were four of us in our theatre party and opinions were mixed.  Ellen didn't like the Duchess.  Good actress, coherent reading of the part, a real person there, but too modern, too hard, too cold--all strength, she said, no passion.  Our friend Dan and vschanoes liked her very well indeed, finding the hardness and chill a function of the world she lived in and appropriate to a modern-dress setting and ambiance.  I floated somewhere in the middle.  I liked how Christine Rouner (who we saw in Coram Boy a while back) brought out the Duchess's wry sense of humor and maintained her dignity through thick and thin without being rigid about it.  I didn't quite believe her relationship with Antonio, but that may have been the fault of the chemistry-free Matthew Greer, who delivered his lines with an unnecessary vigor that made me suspect he wasn't quite sure what they meant.  And I hated, hated, hated the madhouse scene, in which a clutch of actors dressed like Absolute Evil's minions in Time Bandits perform a dry-land synchronized swimming routine while the Duchess croons "I Love You More Than Yesterday" into a red mic that descends from the ceiling.  I'm sorry, but that Duchess would never have had that hallucination in a million years, no matter how strung-out and disoriented and agonized she was.  Madness makes you more yourself, not somebody from another universe.

But I digress.

The Evil Brothers were very good indeed, although Gareth Saxe as Ferdinand started at such a high level of scene-chewery that he had almost nowhere to go once he'd gone fully lycanthropic.  Also, he slurred his words, which is fatal with Webster.  Luckily, he was beautifully bony and angular and young Roger Rees-like, so I hardly cared.  Patrick Page (Henry VIII in last year's A Man For All Seasons) has the most beautiful voice, and just wrapped it around the Cardinal's unctuous hypocrisy like a velvet cloak over a rotting bone.  He was truly shiversome, and I would have given him a more dignified death than the writhing, Grand Guignol one he got, but then I'm not really a very good ironist.  Bosola was played by the versatile Matthew Rauch, who has been in all of Red Bull's productions to date, and always hands in an energetic, subtle, intelligent performance with every consonant, elision, nuance, and emotion fully articulated and felt.  There's always a question, in Duchess, whose tragedy this is, hers or Bosola's, and I'd say here, the honors were pretty much even.

As for the production itself--well, anybody who wants a few yards of pink-scarlet polyester with gold brocading is going to be out of luck, since the set designer must have bought every square inch to be found in New York to wrap and drape not only the backdrop and wings, but to carpet the stage and make chair-cozies for the two metal folding chairs that were all the Duchess's furniture.  It was eye-catching, certainly, and picked up the Cardinal's red buttons and beretta and the red stones on the Duchess's white dress very nicely.  The second act was done in a bare, iron framework with a shower curtain on one side against which the brains of the Duchess's infants were dashed out in a scene that made everyone wince and the lady behind me go "tsk, tsk, tsk" rather loudly.  What with the infants and the gory deaths of Bosola, Ferdinand, Antonio, and the Cardinal, I'm not surprised that Red Bull's fund-raising literature last year included a rather high figure for the purchase of stage blood.  Webster, I suspect, would have loved it.  At the end of the day, though, I found myself dry-eyed and interested in discussion rather than harrowed and mute.  Which is not a bad thing, certainly.  But I'd hoped for something more.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 25th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
Is that Master's thesis floating around anywhere?

(I just have a B.A. in English, but I read as much of this drama as I could find and took as many corresponding courses that would give me access to it.)
Mar. 25th, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
I think it's in Northampton, in storage with the rest of our papers. It could be dreadful, you know. I wrote it a very long time ago and under considerable stress.

Yes, Jacobean tragedy is yummy, isn't it? All that suffering. All that beautiful language. All that twisted emotion.
Mar. 25th, 2010 06:17 pm (UTC)
"More emo than emo! Kiss the poisoned skull of my girlfriend you seduced!"
Mar. 25th, 2010 04:37 pm (UTC)
Less performed than The Changeling? Really? 'cause I've read The Duchess of Malfi and I'd never even heard of The Changeling.
Mar. 25th, 2010 05:18 pm (UTC)
Well, I've personally seen The Changeling twice, and seen references to at least one other performance in the last 15 years or so. This is only the second Duchess production I've even ever heard of. Which tells you something about the absolute value of anecdotal evidence, I guess.
Mar. 25th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
Lovely review!
I am envious of your proximity to the Red Bull, as always. I am reminded of what the Player tells Rosencrantz, in the Stoppard: "We can do blood and love, without the rhetoric, or blood and rhetoric, without the love, or we can do all three concomitant and concurrent, but we can't do the love and rhetoric without the blood. They're all blood, you see." And Rosencrantz asks, "It's all there is, is it?" and The Player says, "It's what we do."
Mar. 27th, 2010 03:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Lovely review!
Yes, I think Dan was quoting you at intermission!

I'm sad you didn't get to see EQUIVOCATION, which closes this weekend - I would love to have been able to discuss it with you! Maybe we can do a reading. Once they publish the @#% script...!
Mar. 27th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC)
Re: Lovely review!
Forgive the drive-by (I was following a breadcrumb from j_bluestocking's journal) -- but there may still be a script for Equivocation available through the Tudor Guild, released by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in conjunction with last year's production. (The Web copy says that the script was only to be sold during the run of the OSF production, but since the page is still up, one might at least try.)

I saw the play last August during that run, and completely agreed with the consensus of many Ashland regulars that it was the breakout show of that entire season. (And now I need to find the copy of the script that I bought that weekend....)
Mar. 27th, 2010 09:38 pm (UTC)
Re: Lovely review!
"Drive-by" nothing! It is immensely kind of you to come over and tell us about this. I've just ordered 2 copies - one for me, and one for my friend Sarah Smith, who is trying to figure out a way to dramatize her excellent novel CHASING SHAKESPEARES....

Again, my thanks!
Mar. 25th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC)
That does sound good. I saw Janet Suzman as the duchess years and years ago and she was spine-tingling. It's a fantastic play.
Mar. 26th, 2010 03:00 am (UTC)
That's it! That's the Duchess I saw! Because I was utterly in love with Janet Suzman and I cried like a fountain! Thank you for reminding me.
Mar. 25th, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)
This sounds extremely interesting if not altogether engaging. I fear I am spoiled forever for that play by having seen Harriet Walter perform the Duchess in the Pit at the Barbican in the 1990's. You can't even get more than about thirty feet from the actors in that theater, and we had front-row seats, having stood in line for a number of hours. Walter was riveting. You wanted to snatch her out of that horrible universe and into a nice comic one where she could indulge her sense of humor and raise her children, troubled only by raving punsters and maybe the occasional brownie.

Mar. 26th, 2010 03:02 am (UTC)
Interesting, but not particularly engaging: You pretty much nailed it.

I would have walked over hot coals to see Walter as the Duchess. Hot coals, I tell you.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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