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Review Round-up: Critics ring praises for Old Vic Duchess

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Jamie Lloyd's revival of John Webster's classic Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi opened at the Old Vic last night (28 March 2012, previews from 17 March), featuring Olivier Award-winner and Nurse Jackie star Eve Best in the title role.

The famously bloody drama charts the calamitous consequences of a young widow's refusal to obey her brothers' command never to remarry. When the spy, Bosola, is planted in the Duchess' household, the trap is set which leads to exile, torture, madness and death.

Best, who was last seen at the Old Vic starring opposite Kevin Spacey in A Moon for the Misbegotten in 2006, is joined in the cast by Tom Bateman, Mark Bonnar, Harry Lloyd and Finbar Lynch.

Michael Coveney

“After all her tortures, trials and tribulations, John Webster’s spirited Jacobean heroine proudly proclaims, ‘I am Duchess of Malfi, still.’ … 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. Most great duchesses - Judy Parfitt, Helen Mirren, Charlotte Emmerson … become drained, distracted, marmoreal. Best tops them … She’s not even driven ‘mad’ by the unleashed lunatics … 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.”

Michael Billington

Jamie Lloyd has come up with that comparative rarity these days: a classical revival that delights in the original's language and period setting. And Eve Best gives a compelling performance that measures up to such past duchesses as Helen Mirren and Harriet Walter ... On the one hand, there is the nihilist view of life as ‘a general mist of error’, as expressed by Bosola and embodied by the corrupt Calabrian princes, Ferdinand and his brother, a cardinal … the production makes sexually explicit the incestuous passion of Ferdinand for his sister, and it is unafraid to show the reality of death: not since Hitchcock's Torn Curtain have I seen a strangling as protracted and plausible as the duchess's … Best, however, who is the star. From her first entrance, bathed in light, she offers a symbolic contrast to the rank gloom of court life. There is also growth in her performance.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“Best ... is very much the star of this rather stately production of John Webster’s 17th-century play. As the duchess of the title, she combines serenity with great power and passion. It’s a warm performance, lucid and moving ... director Jamie Lloyd, in getting his cast to pay so much attention to the density of Webster’s language, loses a sense of intrigue and malignant horror ... The first time we see the duchess, she is wreathed in smoke as if in an Eighties pop video. Fortunately she turns out to be all flesh and blood: a widow, she is smitten with her steward Antonio yet forbidden by her brothers from pursuing the relationship ... In some of the smaller roles there are notes of hamminess. And in the larger role of the duchess's brother Ferdinand, the skilful Harry Lloyd feels miscast ... In many ways this is a traditional production, honouring its period setting. But its moments of gravity are signaled a little clumsily, and when it tries to be sexy it doesn’t satisfy.”

Eve Best & Harry Lloyd in The Duchess of Malfi. Photo credit: Johan Persson
Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

The Duchess of Malfi is a superbly effective piece of theatre, mixing jolting shocks and pitch-black comedy with wonderful lines of ominous verse … the Duchess, who after marrying her steward is cruelly and ingeniously persecuted by her snobbish brothers and their malcontent henchman Bosola ... The great Eve Best seizes all her chances here, giving a thrilling, sexy and often deeply moving performance in Jamie Lloyd’s gripping, atmospheric production ... Best’s great achievement is that she brings a warm, glowing humanity to a play that could easily seem just one damnable thing after another … As she falls for, and seduces, her servant Antonio (Tom Bateman), she combines unbuttoned sensuality with mischievous humour … The play’s biggest structural failing is that the Duchess dies before the end of the fourth act, and the remainder of the play is little more than an over-the-top bloodbath … Harry Lloyd is in fabulously deranged form as the Duchess’ jealous twin brother Ferdinand, who clearly harbours incestuous desires.”

Libby Purves
The Times

“John Webster, with Gothic glee, created a Cardinal steeped in lust and espionage, his brother the Duke a pallid psychopath incestuously preoccupied with his widowed sister ... This is English Euro-horror, the root which led later to Frankenstein: designer Soutra Gilmour picks it up with relish ... it is a world of echoes and executioners and hirelings who, like Bosola, greet a thrown purse of gold with a businesslike ‘Whose throat must I cut?’… The wonder of the play is that against the filthy darkness shines theatre’s most wholesome, heroic, high-spirited heroine. Eve Best’s Duchess is a perfection of laughing, blooming, sane maturity from her arrival scattering light to her defiant grief and dry humour facing death.”

- Hayley Thorpe


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