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The Duchess Of Malfi

Published 29 March 2012

With a higher mortality rate than even the village of Midsomer, Malfi may just have topped my list of places never to go. From the safety of the Old Vic stalls however, the setting is home to an exhilarating tale of sex and murder.

Jamie Lloyd’s production is a gory, dark, sensual and bloody offering that has more ceremony than the highest church’s mass. The air of the auditorium is thick with smokey incense and designer Soutra Gilmour’s stunning four-storey Gothic horror palace looms over the audience ominously.

As the cast enter the stage shrouded in darkness, the tone for the next three hours is firmly set. Wearing red cloaks and masks and performing ritualistic dances, it’s decidedly creepy, and the two evil brothers at the centre of the story do little to help the atmosphere. Harry Lloyd’s incestuous, scheming, mentally unbalanced Ferdinand is only slightly more menacing than his sibling the Cardinal, played by Finbar Lynch as a cold hearted sociopath for whom the bible is, quite literally, a deadly weapon.

But there is a small glimmer of light in the production. When Eve Best enters as their sister the Duchess, she does so illuminated in angelic white. But as the fated tragic character in John Webster’s poetic drama, her days of lighting up an otherwise cruel society are numbered.

If it weren’t for the epic scale of Lloyd’s cinematic production, you’d wonder why this play wasn’t performed more. It has everything needed for an engrossing, albeit decidedly adult, night at the theatre; sex, violence, blood, romance and a plot that is essentially as simple and captivating as a soap storyline.

Best exudes youthful vitality as the naïve but ballsy Duchess, while Lloyd is like a twisted Disney villain as Ferdinand, his handsome exterior becoming more and more frightening as he stoops to hideous tactics to punish his sister for falling in love beneath her station.

Although it may be a dangerous place to live, with dark magic, ghostly apparitions, poisoned bibles, secret weddings and manipulative seduction, there’s never a dull moment in Malfi.


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