Gielgud, RSC Swan season. Antony Sher as Malevole. Directed by Dominic Cooke.
A triumphant production of one of the foremost Jacobean plays. The intrigue plot is as complex as they come, but this company is adept at emphasizing plot lines, and in any case this company’s actors are so well differentiated and individualized, through costume and a variety of hair and beard pieces, that it is ultimately not difficult to follow. And Antony Sher is brilliant and wonderfully energetic as he doffs the wig and sunglasses that, along with his ragged clothes, serve as the disguise he needs to prevent anyone except a trusted few to guess he is really Altofronto, the Duke of Genoa, who has been suddenly (before the action of the play begins) deposed by his rival Pietro, now reigning in his stead. The character is itself a brilliant creation on Marston’s part: a cynical ill-wisher (hence his Italian name) with an unmatchable vocabulary of invective, insult, and scorn. It is extremely entertaining to hear Malevole go at anyone and everyone within hearing; Sher’s diction is perfect; every word is crystal clear and worth relishing. There is a wonderful authenticity to his acting; he commands belief and assent even while he is slyly taking us into his confidence. What is also part of the brilliance of Marston’s creation is the “through-line” of the character: Malevole wants revenge, and we think he will get it, he is so determined and so resourceful; but if he finally gets his chance, will he simply take his revenge and show himself to be no better than those he so vociferously condemns? Does he have an inkling of what the better part of valor may be? Marston keeps us guessing until almost the very end, but meanwhile he drops a few clues, the chiefest one being the character of his — Altofronto’s — duchess, Maria, who has been imprisoned in the dungeon by Pietro and then sexually propositioned by Mendoza, Pietro’s duchess’s lover, who overthrows Pietro and moves to consolidate his base of power through much of the play. In short, Maria, unknowingly faithful to Altofronto, functions as the mostly absent ethical base in the play. When Altofronto has turned the tables and gathered enough resources to reclaim his dukedom and his duchess, he cannot bring himself to kill Mendoza but instead grants his plea for “Life! Life!” I don’t remember the date of this play (and it is nowhere discoverable in the program — looked it up: it’s 1604) but his motive to forgive where he could condemn is reminiscent of Prospero’s view that virtue is a better choice than vengeance. The double reward of dukedom and duchess is palpable enough. Meanwhile, we have had the inestimable pleasure of watching all sorts of licentious and immoral characters cavorting and indulging themselves — and they themselves seem to enjoy Malevole’s trashing of them almost as much as we do.
The play has been set in what seems a central American country of more than usual decadence and corruption. The masque at the end, introduced by a half-bare, ragged “Mercury,” has a wonderful style to it of death on parade: Four characters, with skull masks and costumes of various historical cuts, come in and march around; they are Malevole / Altofronto and his cohort. Altofronto reveals himself to his long-suffering duchess, and then they unmask and take control, with results as described above. The dance that precedes their entrance has a fine, intricate Spanish flair, creating a moment of stasis and balance before the tables are ultimately turned.
The direction is just as clear and crisp as it can be, and the acting is without exception fine. It must be great fun for the actors. This is the Royal Shakespeare Company at its best: seamless ensemble acting surrounding an actor by all accounts and all deserts a star, but one who evidently values the ensemble work for all that it is. And there I was, in the front row of the stalls seeing all of this from a point almost on top of the action — viewed from an angle of 30° down from the horizontal. I seldom can buy a seat as close as this, and wouldn’t always want one this close. But in this case, it was a perfect vantage point.
(And the cost? £22.50 — a bargain, because, in buying a ticket to all five plays in the series, I got them for the price of three. Compare this to the single ticket in stalls Row F on the side bought at the last split-second last night to see the Hall Macbeth, which set me back £39.50 plus £3.00 for an over-priced program, and the advantages of going to the RSC are even more obvious. Unfortunate it is that the RSC has pretty well given up its London home in the Barbican, a loss for all London theatergoers.)