Duchess of Malfi (NY) Review

THEATER REVIEW;A 'Duchess' Returns, Engulfed by Depravity

Published: December 11, 1995, Monday

As the current Princess of Wales can testify, marrying into a royal family brings its own set of nasty problems: confusing intrigues, spying courtiers, double-agent spin doctors, secret sexual liaisons, the confusion of private and public lives and of course those imperial whims of iron.

If the members of the House of Windsor want to avoid sleepless nights, they had probably better skip the Cheek by Jowl company's searing interpretation of John Webster's "Duchess of Malfi" (at the Majestic Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Friday) when it arrives in London at the end of the month.

As conceived by the director Declan Donnellan, the designer Nick Ormerod and a cast that burrows into the skins of its characters like ticks, this traveling production finds a chilling immediacy in Webster's 17th-century tale of a doomed duchess who is destroyed by her sadistic brothers when she marries beneath her. Indeed, the show takes on the contemporary aspect of a sort of Freudian soap opera, a thinking person's "Dynasty" set in a chamber of horrors.

This macabre revenge tragedy, the genre's ultimate exercise in imaginative gore and morbidity, has traditionally been interpreted as a dark morality fable about virtue and corruption in the all-enveloping shadow of death. Here, while giving full due to Webster's obsession with mortality (the sense of "the skull beneath the skin," as T. S. Eliot wrote), Cheek by Jowl has boldly added a new, deeply disturbing psychological dimension.

In searching to justify its tortured characters' motives -- often ambiguous in the text -- the company has transformed the play into a study in ruling-class pathology. The results are less uniformly satisfying, and certainly less delightful, than the same company's all-male "As You Like It," seen at the Academy last season.

But while there is no sexual cross-casting in "Duchess," this production, set with Visconti-esque elegance in what appears to be Mussolini's Italy, is far more daring. And in spite of dry patches of tedium and wet ones of psychosexual excess, the troupe ultimately achieves something very rare: the rethinking of a well-known classic in a manner that will never let you look at it in the same way again.

This radical transformation is keyed, above all, to the portrayal of the play's title character. The Duchess of Malfi (Anastasia Hille) is a proud, willful widow whose secret second marriage to her steward, Antonio (Matthew Macfadyen), sets off a vicious chain of plots, counterplots, tortures and murders masterminded by her brothers -- the Cardinal (Paul Brennen) and her twin, Ferdinand (Scott Handy) -- and their homicidal henchman, Bosola (George Anton).

The Duchess usually comes across as the play's moral polestar: a woman who, having followed her true affections, meets the vengeance of her evil brothers (whose political agenda is never made clear) with unfailing stoicism and Christian resignation. While she gives voice to these sentiments in some of the most beautiful blank verse this side of Shakespeare, she can be irritatingly virtuous and passive.

Neither adjective applies to Ms. Hille's brilliant, lightning-edged interpretation. Dressed in sleek, to-die-for couture-style dresses, she is the very image of tyrannical aristocratic charm, a cross between the young Princess Margaret and Ingrid Thulin in "The Damned," who brandishes a cigarette like a dagger and a dagger like a cigarette.

Moreover, Ms. Hille's Duchess is a profoundly conflicted woman, an emotional cripple warped by regal arrogance and torn by sexual urges she can never fully understand. Her love for Antonio (played with intriguing prickliness by Mr. Macfadyen) seems questionable here, more like a capricious deflection of her attraction to her twin brother, with whom she is physically comfortable in a way she never is with her husband.

This characterization allows for an unexpectedly dynamic progression in a traditionally static role. As the Duchess is systematically stripped of the accouterments of power and subjected to an unspeakable series of tortures (the grisliest involves a severed hand), she sheds the steely imperiousness that has been the very foundation of her identity and, with a haunting quietness, comes to terms with its meaninglessness in the face of her imminent death.

This production also makes it clear that the three ducal siblings are cut from the same cloth. Each of them, to varying degrees, shifts between the showy haughtiness they have clearly been brought up to maintain and cathartic spasms of overwrought despair.

Mr. Handy's giddily deranged Ferdinand seems trapped in perpetual childhood.

His scenes with the Duchess, even just before he has her killed, suggest the rowdy, insular familiarity of privileged siblings who once shared a nursery. Unfortunately, his bubbly take on insanity, though it makes psychological sense, can be excessive, erasing the cold sense of menace required in the play's second half.

Mr. Brennen's thin-lipped, dangerously repressed Cardinal, looking like an El Greco portrait of a church dignitary, is more visibly in control of his neuroses. But his unmistakably sadomasochistic relationship with his mistress, Julia (Nicola Redmond), comes to seem the most extreme embodiment of traits found in the whole family.

Bosola, usually played as a cynical, philosophical commentator on the decadent proceedings, emerges in Mr. Anton's interpretation as a black-shirted soldier of fortune with a Scottish accent who is fueled by class resentment. The didactic nature of his part has been scaled down, as have the preachier passages of the play.

Indeed, Mr. Donnellan has streamlined and rearranged the text while condensing the cast of characters, to create a sense of brisk, cinematic cross-cutting. And he uses Mr. Ormerod's obliquely angled, checkered game board of a set to stage formal tableaux in which the characters appear to be studying and manipulating one another like Olympian chess players.

The production, which Mr. Donnellan describes as a perpetual work-in-progress, has already been touring for months internationally. Perhaps out of the company's need to keep reinventing the performance, certain scenes seem like unfortunate experiments, particularly one in which Bosola is sodomized with a pistol by Julia.

And while the production's first half, which is largely expository, is dazzlingly paced and lucid, its more dramatic second part can be oddly tired-feeling.

Once Ms. Hille's electric Duchess dies, a current of energy seems to have been switched off. And the play's most famous Grand Guignol elements -- the horrific tableaux of dead bodies, the fabled severed-hand scene -- don't really register amid the more engrossing psychodrama.

What does work is the exquisitely orchestrated quartet of deaths in the play's final moments. And the harrowing scene in which Ferdinand unleashes a squad of lunatics to torment his sister is perfection.

As the Duchess watches the madmen symbolically reenact the pageant of her life, one is struck, as she is, by how empty it all seems. Before death, as the Elizabethans liked to remind us, all worldly things shrivel.

The true, universal tragedy of this play, no matter what the interpretation, always comes down to Bosola's declaration that things "which stood'st like a huge pyramid, begun upon a large and ample base, shalt end in a little point, a kind of nothing."


By John Webster; directed by Declan Donnellan. Performed by Cheek by Jowl (Britain). Designer, Nick Ormerod; composer and music director, Catherine Jayes; movement director, Jane Gibson; lighting by Judith Greenwood; company stage manager, Marcus Bray; production stage manager, Jon Howes. Presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Bruce C. Ratner, chairman; Harvey Lichtenstein, president and executive producer. At the Majestic Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene.

WITH: Anastasia Hille (The Duchess), Matthew Macfadyen (Antonio), George Anton (Bosola), Paul Brennen (Cardinal), Scott Handy (Ferdinand), Nicola Redmond (Julia), Shaun Parkes (Delio), Avril Clark (Cariola) and Matthew Bowyer, Sean Hannaway, Christopher Kell, Terence Maynard, Guy More and Peter Moreton.

Correction: December 13, 1995, Wednesday

A theater review on Monday about the Cheek by Jowl company's production of "The Duchess of Malfi" at the Majestic Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music misstated its closing date. It is Saturday, not Friday.