John Webster’s Jacobean masterpiece used to be a fixture in the repertory theatre list, so Jamie Lloyd’s magnificent revival, beautifully lit by James Farncombe, will delight as many of today’s audiences as it will shock and surprise.
Eve Best (Duchess Of Malfi) and Harry Lloyd (Ferdinand) in The Duchess Of Malfi at the Old Vic, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Incense seeps through the Old Vic as the court assembles in a dead march of cowls and candles, swaying rhythmically on Soutra Gilmour’s soaring design of arches, galleries and decorated windows.
Opening exchanges are tucked inside a gruff announcement from Mark Bonnar’s Scottish-accented Bosola, the galley slave turned court spy: “I do haunt you still.”
The whole play’s a haunting in this claustrophobic nightmare. Bosola’s hired by a lascivious Cardinal (Finbar Lynch) and his incestuous brother, Ferdinand (Harry Lloyd), to undo, and re-do, their own sister, perversely reconstitute her long lost chastity.
Eve Best is gloriously translucent, willful, majestic as the Duchess, a character Webster based on a real life story. She’s an illuminated saint, not a plaster one, a sexy silhouette in a diaphanous night gown.
She lusts for her steward Antonio (exceedingly handsome Tom Bateman) and produces three children in secret, rather like Filumena across town at the Almeida, but with far grimmer consequences.
The play develops as a feast of rich and supple poetry, with fantastic theatrical imagery. “Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle” declares Ferdinand as he turns decidedly mad and wolfish.
The stage piles high with more corpses than in several productions of Hamlet and we are left, like the Duchess, thoroughly gob-smacked, garrotted and gasping for air.