The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13): John Webster

The Duchess of Malfi: Webster


(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, until 16 February 2014)

I studied this at school and it has stuck in my mind ever since: indeed, it’s the kind of thing that’s hard to forget. The Duchess of Malfi was the historical Giovanna d’Aragona, traditionally – though no longer – thought to be the sitter in the gorgeous portrait by Giulio Romano in the Louvre. Widowed young, she falls in love with her overseer, the urbane but lowborn Antonio and marries him secretly. As the years pass, she has three children with him and savours the bliss of her married life, but their match remains a secret.

The Duchess knows that her temerity in marrying for love will infuriate her two brothers – the Cardinal, who seeks to use her as a political pawn; and her twin Ferdinand, who is obsessed with the purity of their blood, and whose love for his sister goes well beyond the fraternal. When her brothers’ spy Bosola discovers the truth about the Duchess’s marriage, her dream of happiness fades away. Courageous to the end, she sends Antonio and her eldest child to safety, resolving to face her brothers with all the self-possession worthy of a prince. But little does she know the mental tortures they have in store for her…

The misery of us that are born great!
We are forced to woo because none dare woo us.
And as a tyrant doubles with his words
And fearfully equivocates, so we
Are forced to express our violent passions
In riddles and in dreams …
This is flesh and blood, sir:
‘Tis not the figure cut in alabaster
Kneels at my husband’s tomb.

(The Duchess, Act I, Scene 2)

If Shakespeare’s plays are the equivalents of literary historical novels, then John Webster’s are the slightly trashy guilty pleasures. Like Shakespeare, he draws inspiration from Italian sources and history; but Webster, like so many of his contemporaries, is fascinated by rumours about Italy’s dark side. For him, it’s a double-dealing country of Machiavellian churchmen and their world-weary, poignard-wielding henchmen, where the nobles divert themselves with byzantine intrigues and toy with forbidden love. This is Jacobean theatre with the dial turned up to eleven.

The Duchess of Malfi: Webster

Ferdinand (David Dawson), the Cardinal (James Garnon) and the Duchess (Gemma Arterton)

In The Duchess alone, we have an assassin who was once a galley slave and, before that, a scholar, who remembers just enough of morality to slip deeper into self-loathing with every commission. We have a cardinal who dallies with his mistress and who trades his surplice and beretta for armour and the sword. We have dancing madmen, a quack doctor and a prince who thinks he’s a wolf. Death comes by dagger, strangling and a poisoned breviary. The final scene is little more than a sea of bodies crumpled on the stage, as identities are mistaken, revenge is taken and madness triumphs over sanity. It’s completely bonkers but strangely brilliant. And it’s hard to imagine a better production of the play than this, which draws out the horror and touches on the humour, without ever descending into camp sensationalism.

The same names keep cropping up again and again. James Garnon, who impressed me in Much Ado About Nothing and Richard III, was a magnificent Cardinal: cold, calculating and, for all his reserve, clearly much more dangerous than his febrile brother. Ferdinand, who is precipitated into madness by his thwarted desire for his sister, was played by David Dawson, whom I last saw as Poins in The Hollow Crown‘s Henry IV. It’s a tough part to play well, but he gave Ferdinand a fragility from the beginning: a princely arrogance that splinters away into an animalistic madness that was pitiable rather than laughable. As their sister, Gemma Arterton made a dignified and statuesque Duchess, whose quiet awareness of her own authority gave way to a moving playfulness when she was alone with Antonio (Alex Waldmann). Their romance felt entirely plausible, with the Duchess the stronger and braver of the two: and the courtship scene was so endearing that it left me with a mildly fatuous grin on my face.

The Duchess of Malfi: Webster

Ferdinand (David Dawson) and the Duchess (Gemma Arterton)

But the character who affects me the most in this play is Bosola, the malcontent. An everyman, he watches the love affairs and intrigues of his superiors with a weary resignation, knowing that his part is to spy and cut throats and do as he is commanded. He will damn himself in the process, and receive nothing for his pains but distrust and suspicion. Sean Gilder was a grizzled and completely believable Bosola: a man with scant regard for the hand life had dealt him, who had already suffered too much of the ingratitude of princes. All these strong performances were crucial: there were so few props. And that also meant that when the few props did make an appearance, they had even greater impact. The most impressive was undoubtedly the famous tableau of broken bodies, designed to trick the Duchess into thinking Antonio and her son are dead. Here the wax figures are wheeled out like a gruesome martyrdom, with tiers of candles rising in front of them as if they were part of a shrine.

And the costumes! I was in raptures. Dear God, what I wouldn’t give to be let loose for an afternoon in the Globe’s costume department… The style chosen for this performance was roughly from the period around 1615: it was like the Royal Collection’s In Fine Style exhibition come to life. The men were in baggy breeches and tight doublets, which flared out at the hips and swept down to points at the front. There was even a buff-coat. Silks were slashed and pinked; hats were plumed. The women were in embroidered Jacobean jackets and contrasting skirts, or in sculpted satin dresses with long open oversleeves and farthingales. The variety of ruffs was dazzling in itself: lace collars, hanging loose on the shoulders or supported on wire frames; ruffs pleated, folded or frilled, wide or narrow. It was intoxicating.

It was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon – even if I did emerge to find a light rain falling. Full of exuberance, I could find beauty even in that, as a silvery mist drifted over the river and the dome of St Paul’s rose gleaming out of the darkness across the river. Next up in my Shakespearean adventures: a 1940s film-noir-themed Othello at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios…

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The Duchess of Malfi: Webster

The Duchess (Gemma Arterton) and Antonio (Alex Waldmann)

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