After all her tortures, trials and tribulations, John Webster’s spirited Jacobean heroine proudly proclaims, “I am Duchess of Malfi, still.”
But there is nothing still, or immobile, about Eve Best’s impetuous and full-hearted portrayal. In fact, she surges across the stage on that line, bursting at the seams of the play, and her own white shift.
She’s not even driven “mad” by the unleashed lunatics (here a spooky sound effect, not the full processional Monty, alas) and she kicks against the pricks to the end, unvanquished in death, a grim ghost in silhouette against the ancient ruins and Gothic arches of Soutra Gilmour’s vaulted baroque setting.
This is a tremendous Italianate revival by Jamie Lloyd of one of the greatest plays in the language, a display of glittering jewels on the dung heap of a perverted court, where Mark Bonnar’s full-on bitter Bosola (“the only court gall”) is hired to expose the private life of their own widowed sister by a corrupt cardinal and an obsessive wolf man.
These two – Finbar Lynch in a scarlet cassock and a huge black leather sling (a kinkily appropriate costume accessory necessitated by a broken arm) and an icily sadistic Harry Lloyd – create an axis of evil unimaginable even in these dog days of phone hacking and tweeted calumnies. The story is horrific because you know it happened.
This sense of true-life chronicle, as well as an overpowering stench, is stronger than anything in Shakespeare, or even Whitehall.
And Lloyd doesn’t once let us off lightly. The fifth act is often rushed through after the grisly garrotting and night shrieks (“Some other strangle the children” is the most casually disturbing of commands), but not here. The atrocities continue in betrayals, stabbings, and too-late second thoughts.
The technical back-up from James Farncombe’s brilliant lighting and the sound and music of Ben and Max Ringham creates an overheated chamber of horrors where murderers skulk in corners and church ceremony – swinging thuribles of incense, hooded priests and flickering candles – serves only the most sinister of purposes.
The wax tableau is cunningly done, the severed hand a plausible prop in the darkness, and the duchess’s great speech of the salmon and the dog-fish (“Men oft are valued high, when th’are most wretch’d”) a shaft of illuminating reason.
Lloyd’s company has the ensemble conviction of the RSC at its long distant best, with sterling support from Tom Bateman’s handsome Antonio, the duchess’s secret lover from the forbidden lower ranks, a sort of Peter Townsend to an earlier Princess Margaret; and Iris Roberts as a conniving Julia, the cardinal’s carnal mistress who is despatched (“I go I know not whither”) by sucking greedily on a poisoned missal, a bad end on a good book.