Camden Fringe 2014
Webster’s play is as dark as it gets, a Channel 4 Utopia for the seventeenth century, with layer upon layer of corruption and deceit, but decidedly three dimensional for all that.
Pell Mell’s production takes off when the prince, grotesquely and marvellously played by Tom Blyth, reveals the depths of his virulent disgust for his sister’s sexuality, perhaps for her existence at all. Back in the beginning of the play, when the duchess is dressed in her finery by masked courtiers, she is marked as a construction of the society around her. The opening of the second half where she is symbolically stripped of those same vestments reinforces this concept, but in between we see a picture of the duchess as a real three dimensional character, capable of love and loyalty in contrast to the social masque that goes on around her. Throughout the play Lucy Laing brings depth and presence to the part, a rounded, effective and warm blooded portrayal of the Duchess that keeps her real, central to the play, as she was framed in those opening sequences.
As a production the pace occasionally falters, but more because of the way Webster’s script veers from horror to humour so quickly – to keep up with this melodrama with all its cruelty, plot and occasional bawdy jokes is a hard task. The scene of the Duchess wooing of Antonio, didn’t quite take off with the intensity of the darker scenes, but Antonio keeps believably to his alternate states of happy wonder, interspersed with his knowledge that he is way out of his depth. Therein lies a well explored theme – friendship, loyalty and tenderness are sustained in the scenes with the Duchess and Antonia, the Duchess and her servant Cariola. They contrast with the Prince working himself up to an intense obsessive hatred of his sister, the Cardinal plotting and manipulating, Julia’s knowing affair with the Cardinal, building a dramatic contrast throughout the play. When Ferdinand visits the Duchess, before he knows who it is that she has married, he carries a knife he is to give her to kill herself to regain her honour, and this knife moves from Ferdinand to the Duchess, to the floor – a fine visual symbol of the tension that accompanies their dialogue.
Bosola gives a satisfyingly thuggish performance as the outsider who spies and murders for the highest bidder, his sentimental litanies of remorse quickly bought off by the next paymaster, his hound dog approach belying the social status he will never achieve. The other characters are rounded and sharp, the savagery and bloodshed suitably shocking without going over the top. The set is spare and brooding, the costumes perfectly aligned to the characters (the Prince’s high tight collar, the Cardinal’s red silk suit, the Duchess’s layers from fur coat to soft pyjama, are illustrative and suggestive), the electronic soundtrack was suitably menacing without being camp. All the characters are sharply defined by costume, mannerism and speech – a real plus in a production that is using 17th century language as it helps you locate them in the plot.
One of the production’s real strengths is in its restraint. The language of the play stands out as it should – it is clearly delivered. and well nuanced. This is a very successful and watchable version of Webster, true to the text, still packing an impact.