Accept Your Strangling Joyfully, Girl, Be Happy: John Bell’s Duchess Of Malfi

The Duchess Of Malfi was beautifully directed, acted, designed and lit, and, losing about seven characters, edited, and compelling as a chamber-tragedy, the equivalent of what Ingmar Bergman called a ‘fugue’. Lucy Bell was astonishing and Matthew Moore as Antonio, her steward and secret love, even better I think, as she batters him with love-play (as Olivia never did Malvolio) until he warily and loyally (somehow) succumbs.

Her two malign brothers The Cardinal (David Whitney) and The Judge (Sean O’Shea) who prefer to plot her murder rather than the incest which is clearly on their minds, give world-standard performances and Ben Wood, a big, chunky blond beast born to play Kim Beazley as the roving peasant-assassin and soliloquising-interlocutor Bosola is even better than that: Oscar-worthy, Laurence Olivier Award standard, nothing less, given his mangled lines and his character’s Laocoon-wrestling conscience, nothing less than remarkable. The set, the lighting, the direction by Bell, the cast-shrinking adaptation by Hugh Colman and Ailsa Piper very good indeed I suppose and the applause huge and genuine … but …

The script, the script, my masters, makes no sense. The Duchess gives herself up joyfully to death by strangulation, fondling the rope and flirting with her murderer, while her infant son, always unseen, snores peacefully in an adjacent room and she does not ask, she does not even ask, if he will be killed too, and dismembered and hung up in the cupboard like her lover Antonio. No woman on earth, including Lindy Chamberlain, has ever behaved in this way in my belief. Women care for their children, and want them to live, bargain for their lives. And she does not.

And why her brothers want to kill her (or, in The Judge’s case, kill her and fuck her corpse) is not made plain, and, since it is a true story, should have been easy to discover.

Webster (who, Eliot said in a poem, ‘saw the skull beneath the skin’) was a macabre sadist not always in his perfect mind and was rightly seen torturing rats in Shakespeare In Love, and he has given us I suppose the Psycho of its day, with an always inevitable murder suspensefully, broodily nearing for an hour or so. But its heavings and and squitterings and lumberings into subShakespearian blank verse always fail to ignite the mind for more than a millisecond in my view and always fall back into a hump-backed limping shambles and it is to be wondered why Shakespeare In Italy, a better play, was rejected by Bell Shakespeare (not Bell himself, who really liked it, but his Board) and this accepted.

It nonetheless on the dog-danced-at-all principle, works and works well, it purges with pity and terror as a drama should, and it should be seen.

At the 6.30 Tuesday perhaps, the one I saw, after which you like me can drink yourself to oblivion thinking of Syria.

  1. “CARDINAL. I am puzzl’d in a question about hell;
    He says, in hell there ‘s one material fire,
    And yet it shall not burn all men alike.
    Lay him by. How tedious is a guilty conscience!
    When I look into the fish-ponds in my garden,
    Methinks I see a thing arm’d with a rake,
    That seems to strike at me.”

    Surely a candidate for your Better than Shakespeare series?

  2. I’ve not yet seen the Bell production, with any luck next weekend, but when I first read it I thought it to be an absolutely frightening play.

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