Thursday, May 31, 2012

Honour Killing: The Duchess of Malfi at The Old Vic

This excellent production at The Old Vic has an imposing cathedral-like set that almost constitutes an extra character - one that is incredibily dark and menacing. It's as if all the forces of oppression are looming over the sole female of rank, a dignified and virtuous figure as portrayed  by Eve Best .

The powerful poetic text, and strong lead performances make for a very striking version of this often performed  but repellant play.

Like many Jacobean revenge tragedies, the story's set in Italy - a place of hot passion ( the sex scenes are explicit) and short tempers. Webster, according to TS Eliot, saw 'the skull beneath the skin' - in other words he was obsessed with death, usually of a particularly violent kind.

At the start, the  young Duchess of Malfi, widowed and childless, is warned by  her two brothers not to remarry without their permission. Their motives are not entirely clear, but 'honour' is a word that's frequently bandied about.

Unknown to them, she has already fallen for her handsome secretary; despite the disparity of rank, he responds and  they secretly  marry. However, her brothers have employed a spy, disguised as a groom, to report any suspicious behaviour. Her preganancy is disguised by 'a loose-bodied gown', but she's very partial to the apricots proffered by her tormentor, which he takes as proof that she's expecting. When the truth comes to light, the  younger brother Ferdinand plans a drawn-out and terrible revenge. The other one, a carnally-inclined Cardinal, has enough on his plate just trying to control his feisty mistress.

 One of the problems with this play has been to settle on the motivation.  It may be the brothers dread  a loss of social status or fear her fortune will fall into other hands; perhaps loyalty to the memory of the first husband influences them.  Most directors ascribe incestuous feelings to Ferdinand to account for the extremities of his behaviour.

It occurred to me, reading  recent newspaper reports of 'honour' killings, that a search for further motives is unnecessary. Critics claim that Webster's representations of cruelty and corruption were just reflections, as he saw it, of the society he lived in. While the notion of 'honour killing' might have seemed a historical relic,  in the light of recent cases it's easier to credit.The explanation for the cruelty is not particular to the case of the Duchess and her brothers but  a general reflection of what can occur when women resist control of their sexuality. 


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Ripe for Plucking: The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov at The Rose Theatre, Kingston

Chekhov's portrait of a family in decline can make for tedious staging, but this productions injects a bit of comedy into the melange of languid characters waiting for something to happen.

When Madame Raneskaya comes back from Paris she exudes wealth and scatters rubles, but her estate's on the edge of collapse, as she's informed by  her hired business adviser, Lopakhin. Having risen from the ranks by his bootstraps one suspects he's less than sympathetic . But nobody in this dysfunctional family does anything quickly. The time when the harvest from the prodigious cherry orchard supported the family, their servants and a raft of hangers-on is past. Now the developers gather like vultures before the start of the  inevitable land auction.

Too bad the family will be forced to carry on their lives of relative leisure elsewhere, some more galvanised than others by historical changes. But it's the class they've hardly noticed and who've sustained their  existence who suffer most. 

Here's my review on The Public Reviews Website

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Kind of Co-dependency : Charles Dyer's  Mother Adam at Jermyn Street Theatre

Press nights at Jermyn Street Theatre seem to be packed with luvvies come to support their fellow thesps. They aren't hard to spot in the tiny 70 seat theatre down some steps in Jermyn Street. Last time I came it was for a musical version of She Stoops to Conquer, and I saw Stephen Fry and James Coden. The latter slept through the second half, which I thought was odd (and rude)  until I read that his wife had given birth to their first child three days before.

This time I saw one of my favourites, the actress who plays  Mrs Warboys in  One Foot in the Grave , in the row in front of me. Further along was another actress who played a very watchable Inspector Gina Gold in The Bill  Actors  certainly make an appreciative audience ; they know the hard work goes into making difficult parts acceptable, and always shout 'Bravo!' at the end.

Unlike the musical version of She Stoops to Conquer I saw here,  I wasn't so enthusiastic; but  a two-hander long enough to have an interval is a challenge for the  the actors . Speaking of intervals, I must say the white wine I half drank then was appalling. A saving grace was the Tesco Express opposite, on the corner of Jermyn and Lower Regent Street, where I bought a packet of spicy rice cakes and threw the wine and its plastic container into a bin. I don't think I should complain, though, because  if it weren't for the 'hospitality' I'd have to buy my own drink, or go without. Also, if the theatres didn't let me have a couple of free tickets in return for reviewing, I wouldn't be able to afford to go so often. Like the mother/son relationship depicted in the play, it's a kind of co-dependency.

Here's my review of the play on The Public Reviews website