January 20, 1986: Webster, The Duchess of Malfi

National Theatre, Lyttelton. With Ian McKellen as Bosola, Eleanor Bron as the Duchess. Directed by Philip Prowse

I saw Prowse’s Heartbreak House in Glasgow at the Citizens’ Theatre in Septem­ber. Prowse’s obtrusively heavy hand is evident in this production too. The figure of Death — an actual actress in a black monk’s habit — stalks and sits, by turns, throughout the play, and is by and large distractingly obvious. The scene with the madmen doesn’t work. Overall, I had a difficult time getting engaged in this production, even though Prowse was unable to hide completely the great, touching, grotesque beauty of Webster’s language. In fact, I sensed that Prowse’s purpose was in some way or other to depersonalize the action. He succeeded, to the emotional loss of involvement in the plight of this innocent in a world over­whelmed by evil. We do get a sense of her innocence, her political  naïveté, and it must be said in fairness that Eleanor Bron is a very capable actress indeed. The scene in which she tells the parable of the salmon, from a position sitting on the floor well downstage, was just nearly spell-binding. Here Prowse was forced to let the play speak for itself.

At other moments Webster, and his audience, were not so lucky. The set is one of these amazing, gigantic-scale, cavernous Italianate palazzo rigs, in which the actors are — intentionally, it seems — dwarfed. Yes, yes, the theme, the pettiness of human beings, the stars’ tennis balls and all that. Nothing matters. But, wait, there are things that do matter. “I am Duchess of Malfi still” doesn’t really play in this production because we have not become convinced of the heroic grandeur of the lady, of the “integrity” (to steal a word from the moralized ending) of human flesh and blood and soul, all together. We are convinced only of her absurd and wishful innocence.

And so a lot rings hollow, Ian McKellen’s competent performance as Bosola included. That is, it is competent, but to no particular end. His line after he recog­nizes Antonio, to whom he has just given a mortal blow — “I had rather it had been anyone in the world, etc.” (words to that effect) — is not believable, and in fact is almost a throwaway. Prowse sees no greatness, either in persons or in poetry, here, and his smallness of vision conflicts most obtrusively, and distract­ingly, with the resonances generated by the genuinely deep conflicts over the question of human nature set going by this remarkably playable play.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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