I loved the ambience of the recreated Blackfriars , and whilst the candle light felt a little problematic at times ( how do they get away with that, with Health and Safety?) it was very interesting to see this play in the kind of ambience in which it was performed, particularly with the relationship from stage to audience. Interesting how the ‘indoor’ plays of this time speak much less about location and general atmosphere than The earlier Elizabethan plays. The imagery in the text becomes even more focused on the characters’ psychology.
At the beginning ( as usual) all was relatively well. The Duchess (Gemma Arterton) was imperious, playful and beautiful; Her steward [Alex Waldmann] was an innocent, cute young man , her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal [David Dawson and James Garnon] were corrupt and dangerous, the mercenary Bosola[Sean Gilder] was gruff and dangerous looking . The verse was very clear which was no mean achievement given the complexity of the language.
However, the actors played at an incredible pace which whilst on the one hand was effective, it rarely changed, and like all set rhythms became monotonous. Furthermore, and worse, the relentless pace gave the actors very little space to act with each other. Indeed for the most part, as with the National’s Lear I blogged about earlier this month, there appeared to be nothing much going on energetically between them, or at least only fitfully. This apparent lack of real contact between the performers is death to the power of theatre. Nothing less. No money or set can replace it. As often happens, it was when actors did something to each other physically that real contact was made between them. This contact would then last for a short while and then the lack of contact would begin again. Two of the actors, Julia [Denise Gough] and Cariola[Sarah Macrae] in particular, were excellent team players and did seem to act as if they were in the same play with the other actors on the stage.
Where the play started to seriously disintegrate for me was when the going started to get tough for the characters, for then it was apparent that the development one might as an audience member be entitled to expect was beyond the actors or certainly the director, Dominic Dromgoole. Let us take the assertion made by Ms Arterton in the introductory film, that the Duchess becomes ennobled by her tragedy. I really do not feel this happened. She was merely a little more angelic and tragic at the end than at the beginning. To be fair to her, she actually has not too much stage time for this to happen as she is dead and gone by the end of Act 4. It would have seriously helped within the production though if the prison section of the play had taken a good bit more time to give the actors the opportunity to feel and really send out an atmosphere of foreboding, despair and loss . She had to have time to make this transformation and the director did not give her the space. The whole thing proceeded at breakneck speed.
When I first saw this play in 1972, the Jacobean plays were new to me. I remember how exciting this play was for me. The plot twists really work because we are not dealing with a well known Shakespeare play. So when the Duchess decides to trust Bosola with her secret we need to be gasping, ‘don’t do it!’ The actors need to use these moments to thrill the audience, and surely to create some sympathy for the good characters . This moment, one of many, was just rushed over .
In terms of the arc of the whole play, the scene in which she dies and is then revived by Bosola only to die again is absolutely crucial to the structure of the play. Bosola the mercenary is surely by this time seeking some kind of redemption. He is a contract killer, and yet he regrets murdering her. This polarity of the cynical murderer on the one hand, and the desperate man seeking redemption on the other is the engine for the rest of the play. Suddenly she revives and we see him revive . He even tells her Antonio is not dead, that her brother was lying. Bosola should be desperate, and then suddenly she dies. It should be an absolutely brilliant and powerful moment which completely changes him.
But The rest of the show , a whole act!, was little more than a series of bloody comedy sketches . Suddenly the actors did things with the audience as if everyone was getting lost with where the play was going. Whilst I can see this might be an issue with the play itself, surely it is the director and cast’s responsibility to take us through this , and give us a feeling of the whole, as Chekhov would say. A feeling that the play was taking us on a journey. As I said I feel that this responsibility rests with the character of Bosola steeped in blood, who struggles to redeem himself in some measure. At the end though Bosola kills the one man he was trying to help. It is as if he is in some kind of gory bog that is simply sucking him down the more he tries to struggle to get out of it. But he was not allowed to take this central role in the plot, or was not able to. As he and the brothers sink in the bloody mire of their own evil, we should be left for long moments to reflect on this horrible presentation of the world. This lack of focus in the last act I felt was primarily the directors responsibility and made me leap up to make a slice of toast and a cup of tea.