John Webster had one amazing skill. He could craft lines that glow in the memory like radioactive gems. ‘A politician is the devil’s quilted anvil; he fashions all sins on him, and the blows are never heard.’ Eliot loved him. Pinter used to stroll around the parks of Hackney shouting his soundbites into the sky. But Webster never discovered how to put his highly wrought lines into the mouths of likable or captivating characters.
The Duchess of Malfi is a Jacobean slasher-play, a straight-to-video Tarantino blood-fest, full of cloaked assassins and scheming dukes. We’re in an Italian court where a beautiful noblewoman, played by Eve Best, has fixed her eye on a handsome young bumpkin. As soon as she arrives on stage, all merry smiles and lustful vitality, it’s clear she has the life expectancy of a choc-ice in the Sahara. Having married her nice-but-dim boyfriend she’s marked for death by her paranoid brothers. One is a tights-and-britches baddie who creeps in and out of the shadows leering and whispering. The other is a tart-tupping cardinal with a haughty manner and a candyfloss pink hat.
They hire various killers and a murder spree starts. It never stops. There’s a particularly unpleasant strangulation scene, grotesquely drawn out, in which limbs quiver and eyes roll madly, and the victim’s tongue flails and gropes at the air like a beached trout. A minor knifeman named Bosola (played with relentless dourness by Mark Bonnar) acquires a conscience towards the end and begins to show gleams of humanity. It all comes too late. The play culminates in a lengthy scene in which Bosola, and three other killers, writhe around on the floorboards stabbing each other while making the sort of speeches that characters in plays make while stabbing each other. It’s curiously uninvolving.
Director Jamie Lloyd clearly admires Webster as much as Eliot or Pinter do. His production is crammed with flashy add-ons. Incense infests the air. Priests and courtiers slow-march in and out like toy soldiers. The soundtrack echoes with bell chimes, dog howls and the peals of whimpering children in faraway cloisters. The intention is to magic us out of the theatre altogether and into a Renaissance palace. But it’s doomed, alas, like all attempts to hypnotise the play-goer with twiddlesome tricks.
Soutra Gilmour’s high-rise set, a triple-tiered wedding cake of Gothic timber, is so elaborately gorgeous that it suggests a failure of nerve somewhere, a recognition that the play’s shortcomings require lavish visual compensation. Bad script, bad plot, bad characters. But, hey, great furniture. A few spectators bailed out at half-time. They didn’t miss much. After the interval, the auditorium gradually filled with the restful susurrations of a TB hospice. Those who weren’t coughing were dozing and those who weren’t dozing were coughing.
The Print Room is a small, newish theatre off Westbourne Grove with large ambitions. Uncle Vanya by Chekhov, first produced in 1899, is a curiously uplifting tale of boredom and sexual frustration in the depths of a Russian summer. It’s a hard play to get right and in this intimate space every fault will be glaringly exposed. Director Lucy Bailey pulls off a near-perfect production. Her staging is subtle, elegant and simple.
The cast are superb. David Yelland is wonderfully priggish as the hypochondriac art professor who drives his family nuts. His smug pomposity had the audience in fits of giggles. Lucinda Millward, as his jaded young wife Yelena, is a model of cosseted elegance. William Houston brings plenty of rich, ripe fruit to the role of Astrov, the philandering eco-bore (yes, an eco-bore; it’s an amazingly prophetic play). Iain Glen, a sort of David Soul with depth, plays the title role. Glen is as gifted an actor as anyone in Hollywood. Quite why he’s still here, and not over there, is a mystery. His Vanya is far more than the usual crumpled comic drunkard. He adds a dose of sex appeal too and an undertug of stoical intelligence. Late in the play he descends briefly into madness and starts shooting the house up with a pistol. Glen brings complete conviction and authority to this brush with insanity. A marvellous turn.
And an exemplary production. The Print Room is a terrific venture: a cottage theatre in Notting Hill with West End production values. The producers are mercifully untouched by the West End’s traditional avarice. Rather than cadging five quid off us for a glass of wine they handed out the stuff free during the interval. And again at the end. Audience and cast mingled on stage quaffing claret. What a civilised arrangement. I can’t wait to go back.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 7, 2012