Good Friday is the gloomy day when death reigns and there is no hope. I ended up unwittingly marking the sentiment and, after watching the Passion play in Trafalgar Square, went to see the Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic.
I think I thought I’d studied the play at school and so was expecting a bawdy Restoration comedy. Turns out I was somehow mixing it up with The Rover by Aphra Behn. The Duchess of Malfi has its comic moments but by the end of the play everyone’s lying dead on the stage floor. And I mean everyone – it’s a bit of bloodbath.
I should have gathered it wasn’t going to end well by the ominous hooded chanted beginning, but it was only by the time we got to the interval that I began to wonder if the play would end with everyone living happily ever after.
It is not happy. But then it’s a Jacobean tragedy, and had I known that, I guess I’d have known what to expect. Oh ignorant me! The Duchess is good and marries for character rather than money. Her brothers hate her for it – one is a promiscuous cardinal, the other obsessed with her in a way that could be considered incestuous. There’s stranglings and stabbings and screamings and ghosts and dismembered hands… The stranglings went on so long it was by turn comical and horrific to watch.
But it wasn’t gothic or overly macabre and I really enjoyed it. Eve Best’s vivacious duchess was delightful, and her slimy brother was utterly creepy and foul, as he should be. The entire play seemed to me to be about the triumph of good character over evil – although she ends up murdered, the goodness of the Duchess shines like a beacon through the play from beginning to end, her actions and reputation impeccable in the face of the schemes and machinations of evil men. Her loyalty to her brothers as family is saintly rather than foolish, even though they are her undoing.
Webster doesn’t compare to Shakespeare, and the plot is a little simplistic, but knowingly – there’s a brilliant line towards the end, when one of the characters accidentally kills the person he’d intended to save, commenting in his despair:
‘I know not how:
Such a mistake as I have often seen.
In a play.’
And now I’ve seen it in a play too, in all it’s gory glory.