Note: The following review dates from August 2002 and this production's original run at Stratford.
Sex, drugs, political corruption, violence and murder infest the court of Genoa in John Marston's The Malcontent. It may have been written in 1603, but the play transfers brilliantly to the 21st-century Latin American setting of Dominic Cooke's mesmerising production.
As the play begins, the beautiful and sexually voracious ladies of the court dance sensuously with Ferneze (Billy Carter), a handsome young courtier dressed immaculately in white suit and crimson lace shirt. But before long, the virile Carter is writhing on the floor half-dead, wearing only the Duchess Aurelia's luxurious silk chemise.
The court has sunk deep in corruption since the deposition of Duke Giovanni; plots abound and venal courtiers switch sides to support whoever appears the stronger. Unknown to most, Duke Giovanni still inhabits the court in disguise as Malevole, the malcontent, and his acerbic tongue is tolerated by those he exposes and reviles. Antony Sher manages to draw a clear distinction between the Duke - noble, honest and dignified - and Malevole - cynical, bitter, caustic and condemnatory.
The principal villain, Mendoza, is played by Joe Dixon with a degree of naivety that makes it difficult to take his wickedness entirely seriously. Fortunately, this play's a tragi-comedy, one of the very first of that genre, and there are laughs in plenty. Were it a true tragedy, it would need a more credible villain.
The acting is good. Amanda Drew plays the Duchess Aurelia as a lascivious wanton. Claire Benedict as Maquerelle organises the ladies of the court like a madam in a Jamaican brothel. Geoffrey Freshwater makes corruption almost endearing as an old courtier who sells the young wife's favours and supports whoever appears to be in control.
The play famously starts with vile discordant music and ends in harmony. Gary Yershon's music is splendidly played by a six-man band and lends style to the designs of Robert Innes Hopkins, which cleverly marry elegance with the poor visual taste of military dictatorships.
This production has great panache and verve, and the audience adore it. Although it has some profound points to make about virtue and corruption, pleasure and duty, it doesn't labour them. Virtue does, of course, ultimately triumph and Duke Giovanni is restored to power. But as the play ends with a glorious masque and dance, you're left wondering just how much frail human nature really has been changed.
- Robert Hole
The Malcontent opened at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon on 20 August 2002 (previews from 31 July) and ran there in repertory until 13 September 2002, and then at Newcastle Playhouse 25 September to 5 October, 2002. It transferred to the West End's Gielgud Theatre from 5 December 2002 to 25 January 2003.