Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Duchess of Malfi (Dominic Dromgoole, 2012)

"We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and bandied/
Which way please them."

It's been a while since I blogged a play screened on BBC4, but at long last (thanks to a sprained foot keeping me off work) I've finally found the time to put aside two and a half hours to watch this. The performance, to open the Globe's new indoor theatre, was televised and, oddly, is introduced by Andrew Marr, describing John Webster as the "Quentin Tarantino" of Jacobean theatre. It's a valiant attempt to introduce the private, candlelit indoor theatres such as Blackfriars which started to pop up for the posher audiences once Elizabeth had snuffed it.

Much as I love Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, and have a passing acquaintance with Thomas Middleton, this is my first taste of John Webster. First impressions are, well, that this is a typical Jacobean tragedy in its structure and its tropes, but a good one. It's rather less violent than might be expected (and I was led to expect), but for all its Jacobean tragediness (er...) this play shows a splendid insight into the human psyche; even in their stratified society, punctuated by religious ritual, these people's inner lives are so very recognisable. In that sense Webster is closer to Shakespeare than to Jonson and Marlowe (the latter could be slightly more accurately compared to Tarantino, with added religious irreverence!), and it's not surprising that they seem to have collaborated.

Anyway, the production... the staging is a triumph, as are the cast, led by Gemma Arterton. Much as I love imaginative and thematic stagings, it's also good to go back to the costumes and sets of the original productions, and the play flows and breathes magnificently, bathed in candlelight. 

This a magnificent production of a play which, even if you can't quite get drunk on the poetic language as you can with Shakespeare, is well worth seeing, and much neglected. It's not hard to come up with feminist readings (there's quite the patriarchy going on, to put it mildly) and Marxist readings; Antonio not being posh is the cause of the brothers' rage, although there are also hints of incestuous desire and the old-fashioned patriarchical desire of men to control women's bodies. No doubt academia has much to say about all that; my own uni years doing English are frighteningly long ago.

I hope BBC4 carry on doing this sort of thing. I really do.

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