Describing a play as being “ahead of its time” can have wild implications, especially if said theatrical drama was written four hundred years ago. But watching the Greenwich Theatre’s superb production of The Duchess of Malfi, it’s possible to see that John Webster apparently throws out the usual rules of cause and effect and characterisation and as B. Ifor Evans suggests in A Short History of English Drama:
"(it is) as if life itself were governed by chance, not reason, as if human beings acted from passion rather than from consistent conduct governed by consecutive thought."The result is a radical concoction in which antagonist becomes protagonist and the audience's sympathies shift half way through against our better judgement.
Although Webster begins Malfi with former criminal Bosola's attempt to gain a pardon and show his changed demeanour and he hangs around to offer commentary, from the moment the Duchess enters he places her front and centre and the play becomes a kind of courtly romance, in which Malfi marries her clerk for love rather than money, but as is the way with such concoctions in secret because its against the expressed wishes of her two brothers, a cardinal and a duke who are consumed with spiritual but mostly financial reasons why a second union (any union) should not take place.
When Bosola is inserted into her household to spy on their sister and uncovers the truth the action, though Webster's writing retains a skein of dark humour, turns tragedy as the misguided motivations of the brothers lead Bosola to seek revenge for what they’ve tempted him to do and the person they force him to become in order to carry out their business. Rather like Hitchcock's Psycho, as well experiencing a massive genre shift, the audience finds its allegiance shift in the direction of the man they should find most repellent, but unlike Norman Bates, Webster allows Bosola to ultimately find redemption.
As Bosola, Tim Treloar is commanding. Opening the play as a kind of unreconstructed Gene Hunt figure easily brought into the conspiracy by some easy change, as he shifts from arrogant to avenger, the sweat and tears between seem to become permanently etched on his face. He’s matched by Aislin McGuckin’s attuned aristocratic Malfi whose pre-Raphaelite gait belies a complex soul; rightly, she commands the stage, her maid and various men folk like satellites drifting about her, and it's one of the rare occasions when the loyalty seems deserved rather than conferred because of her position.
But there are few weak performances. As he did with his Mosca in Volpone, Mark Hadfield exquisitely emphasises the duplicitousness of the Cardinal to especially shocking effect when his lover is crossed in a gesture which should be a blessing but becomes the binary opposite. The cold magnetism of Tim Steed’s Ferdinand makes legible why Bosola would throw in his lot even though they’re clearly very wary of one another. Edmund Kinglsey initially seems slightly uncertain in Antonio’s skin but as the character’s masculinity increases so does the strength of his performance to the point that when he discovers his wife’s fate the effect is heartbreaking.
With simple setting and “contemporary” costuming of no fixed time frame, Elizabeth Freestone’s staging is in service to making the text as lucid as possible. Malfi’s dramatic domestic story is delivered with weighty hammer blows but unafraid to underscore the tonal shifts even taking risks by inserting some apparently humorous staging of her own, which seemed to confuse the audience who were watching during this recording; in one particularly hilarious moment comes during the dark tipping point of the story and is greeted with much nervous laughter. But that just seems to fit a play that itself is striving to innovate beyond the expectations of its time.
The Duchess of Malfi is available on dvd from Stage & Screen.