There have been a number of productions of John Webster’s Duchess recently, most notably at the Old Vic with Eve Best in the title role. It isn’t an easy play to stage successfully, for a number of reasons. What other revenge tragedy has a villain punished by being turned into a make- believe werewolf?
Famous as much for its uncompromisingly fierce, nihilistic and determinedly hyperbolic vision of the politics of Renaissance court life, as for offering one of the great tragic roles for a woman in the shape of the Duchess, the play offers a disquieting privileging of gender issues and an ambiguous reminder of the status of female ‘honour’ in a patriarchal society. There is arguably no real redemption possible, but only the release of the grim quiet of the grave. Once the remarkable Duchess herself is dead, it is hard to find sympathy for most of the characters.
However, what Eyestrings has done very impressively with their production is to create a vision of the play that is both distinctive and discomforting, and one which makes rather stunning use of a small space. The radical stripping down of the play to just ninety minutes results in the elimination of many sub-plots and puts a primary focus on the familial aspects of this tragedy, where the main protagonists only tragic flaw is that she seems to want to be live freely.
The Duchess a young widow falls in love and decides to marry her steward, Antonio, a man below her social-class. This so outrages her brothers Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal that they decide to wreak a terrible revenge. To aid them they utilise the seething malcontent (who was previously an assassin for the Cardinal), Bosola, who has the job of spying on the Duchess for financial reward.
Little was lost in this admirably speedy and fluid account of the play, though it was slightly hard to grasp at times that what underlies Ferdinand’s behaviour is as much desire to inherit the Duchess’ fortune (since she had no children by her late husband), as his somewhat incestuous desire for his twin.
The opening of the play with actors grinning like death-masks at the audience conveyed the sense of horror at the heart of Webster’s vision of the world. As T.S. Eliot put it: ‘Webster was much possessed by death/and saw the skull beneath the skin.’
Owen Horsley’s staging was expressionistic and surreal, something heightened by Simon Anthony Wells’ set design, the stage furnished with six chairs, some dangling meat hooks, harsh light bulbs, 1950s microphones and a series of TV monitors – which suggested this was a world in where surveillance and spying was crucial .
The design brings out the idea that the court was a place where almost no one could be trusted, an avenue of echoes where corruption in the pursuit of power was the norm. At times the noise of the piece felt excessive given the size of the space, with too many shrill voices competing for attention in the numerous murder scenes. The stage was similarly visually cluttered at times.
Kelly Hotten in an intense, beguiling performance was of a rather forlorn, serious and beautifully ethereal Duchess. Orlando James made for a suitably unpleasant Ferdinand and his descent into madness via lycanthropy after ordering his sister’s death was striking. Edmund Wiserman’s Antonio was most successful early on when in awe of the Duchess but there wasn’t much in the way of chemistry between them, while George Taylor’s Cardinal seemed a little too well-mannered in his role, with no sign of the ravenous beast beneath the courtly, clerical mask. Philip Cairn’s Bosola also could have been creepier, but overall the cast do a strong job with Webster’s still unsettling play.