THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
by John Webster
Dundee Rep To 26 October 2002
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat 19 October
Audio-described 17 October & 2.30pm 19 October
Runs 2hr 55min One interval
TICKETS 01382 223530
Review Timothy Ramsden 12 October
Visually striking, Dundee’s Webster has the makings of an all-round enthralling account.‘There’s no deep valley but near some great hill.’ The Duchess’s line ends part one of Dundee’s production.Webster’s story takes us deep, leaving the heights to be conveyed by the actor taking on the title part. Irene MacDougall has it comparatively easy until the interval.
At first she rather forces the niceness in contrast to her deep-died villainous brothers, Duke Ferdinand and the politico-military Cardinal. All those early smiles suggest someone consciously creating an impression rather than natural character. But she’s appealingly human in nervously courting her own steward Antonio, and when her brothers discover the marriage, she’s a picture of loving agony as she’s forced to put on an act and dismiss him.
The fraught containment of this scene melts naturally into the moment the malcontent agent Bosola praises the dismissed steward. As the courtly way is to snub the disgraced, his openness is a sure sign of honesty, leading to MacDougall’s relieved pleasure in admitting the exiled man’s her husband. But Bosola’s honesty is purely personal: professionally he’s there to spy and passes on the husband’s newly-discovered identity to his masters. It’s a complexity that’s difficult to catch and Rodney Matthew underplays his character’s bitter self-conflict.
It’s in the second part the imprisoned, mentally tortured and murdered Duchess faces the toughest acting test and MacDougall measures up to it. Catching the noose that’s about to throttle her she insists on kneeling – ‘Heaven’s gates are not as highly-arched as princes’ palaces’ – a final, calmly authoritative sign of the integrity that’s – just – seen her through her last days.
Madness tempts directors to all kinds of misjudgement. Dominic Hill has so far steered the play with narrative rapidity and judgement – there’s a fine moment in the first part when a curtain suddenly falls to reveal the Duchess, Antonio, their child and female entourage – a family grouping in contrast to the cold male tension back at court – plunged refugee-like on their way after her brothers have had the city of Ancona banish them.
Hill muffles the prison scene by over-restraint (leading to the view it’s direction behind Matthew’s contained Bosola). It begins well – the dead man’s hand provoking shrieks from MacDougall as she feels its coldness in total dark, and views the apparent corpses of her husband and child. But the madman’s dance is underwhelming, and it’s fatal to have the celebrated death-loving dirge as a sung voice-over – who listens to unfamiliar, disembodied lyrics when there’s something to watch on stage?
On the other branch of the family, there’s good work from Sandy Neilson’s controlled Cardinal, and Ann Louise Ross as the sexy mature lady who’s his over-confident mistress – Neilson’s first overt surge of energy comes as he poisons her.
Economy, presumably, means no child-actor’s used as the Duchess’s surviving son. It’s a shame – there’s something far-fetchedly anti-climactic about declaring a watchful regency over a bundled baby as the lights fade.
Yet it’s touching, at the end, to see the multi-murder victim grouped at the end, family-photo like, as they had been in life at the start. And Tom Piper provides an unfriendly empty space, marked only by tall pillars, emphasised by Bruno Poet’s smokily cold and moody lighting.
Dapper as he might appear until lunacy strikes, Ferdinand’s initial wellington-booted appearance sloshing through water (later used for a forced drowning) adds to his coldness. It’s only when the Duchess features that curtains slide along, defining more intimate spaces with their warmer-coloured textures and folds. Yet the deep-red they bring also suggests blood, and they provide hiding-places for secrecy and treachery.
If the performances generally could – without edging to melodrama – achieve a similar boldness this already striking production would move into a superlative class.
Pescara: Thane Bettany
Delio: Andrew Clark
Servant: Claire Dargo
Antonio: Keith Fleming
Duchess: Irene MacDougall
Bosola: Rodney Matthew
Servant: Janine Mellor
Cardinal: Sandy Neilson
Castruchio/Doctor: Robert Paterson
Julia: Ann Louise Ross
Ferdinand: Alexander West
Cariola: Emily Winter
Director: Dominic Hill
Designer: Tom Piper
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Composer: Anthea Haddow
Choreographer: Jane Howie
Fight arranger: Carter Ferguson