The Duchess of Malfi doesn’t shy away from the more macabre aspects of Renaissance revenge tragedy. It is highly ritualistic from the first scene, where a candlelit funeral procession commemorates the death of the Duchess’ husband, the event that opens John Fletcher’s most thought provoking play.
Portrayals of the Duchess and her two brothers, and her new lower-class husband, Antonio, are traditional. The stately Duchess, Eve Best, is sweet, dignified, and a little bit coy, the perfect mix for her to become, alongside Antonio, the only sympathetic emotional centre in an otherwise ambivalent play. The Cardinal is a tower of Machiavellian corruption and religious hypocrisy; Ferdinand is a seething mass of suppressed incestuous desire, misogynistic control and classist prejudice. All of this is played in the spirit of early 17th century stagecraft. Indeed, the staging, full of wooden pillars and corner alcoves, and including a backstage exit and an overhanging bridge, reminds us of such a stage. The ‘arras’ covering the back exit, and the bridge, serve to stage the important theme of spying in many scenes.
The weak link in an otherwise sound cast is Bosola. The disillusioned, malcontent servant is notoriously hard to play, particularly when he takes over the unlikely role of revenge protagonist, in the final act. He has some of the most imagery-heavy speeches, which should sound simultaneously poetic and bitter. However, an incongruous Scottish accent, and disgusting rags amongst a sea of stately costume, injected more humour into the role than this sombre production should have allowed.
When this production tried to address the difficult blend of tragic feeling and mechanical humour, typical of Renaissance revenge tragedy, it had mixed success. Best’s long, realistic strangulation is a high point in acting, if not in audience morale. The reaction is to grimace, laugh when it starts to get awkward – she’s not dead yet!? – and finally squint behind half closed eyelids, in realisation that this death is played out in real time. It’s a departure from the stylised feel of the rest of the play, but it works surprisingly well. Less successful is the fast-paced, bloody conclusion instigated by Bosola. This might be on account of Fletcher’s melodramatic, sometimes irrelevant, plotting. For more successful examples, think Hamlet, or, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. Such endings are always difficult to get right, Fletcher’s particularly so, but this was especially ill-fitting.
This production mixed the realistic and the stylised, the humorous and the terrible, with variable results. To a certain degree these various tones are existent in John Fletcher’s text, however, in the text they exist in parallel, rather than in canon. It is poetic, macabre and shocking in parts, a largely sombre take on a Renaissance classic.