THE DUCHESS OF MALFI by John Webster, directed by Peter Hinton (Stratford). Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to September 23. $81.65-$106.95. 1-800-567-1600. See Out of Town, page 133. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
John Webster's the Duchess of Malfi is one of the best English dramas of the early 17th century, a blend of impressive and riotous poetry, chicanery and madness, featuring a mightily dysfunctional family.
Set in a rigid, corrupt world order where survival depends on how well a person works the system, the play centres on the title figure, a widow who secretly weds her steward, Antonio, and keeps the fact from her two brothers, the incestuously obsessed Ferdinand and the power-hungry, lecherous Cardinal.
The script creates a world of darkness, using imagery riddled with disease and witchcraft, and director Peter Hinton goes for the gloominess in the text and never shies away from its physical horrors. Bonnie Beecher's cold white lighting nicely supports his concept, as does Carolyn M. Smith's design of waxworks, constricting formal costumes and memento mori.
At times, the action drags in the three-hour-plus production, but part of the blame lies with performers who don't fill out their parts. Paul Essiembre's Ferdinand is too often one-note, while Shane Carty's Antonio - admittedly a difficult part - never rises above passive, naive dupe.
Better are Lucy Peacock, whose intentionally stylized Duchess grows in power, dignity and grandeur as her life becomes more circumscribed, Peter Donaldson as the two-faced Cardinal, and Karen Robinson as a comically flirtatious wife whose affair with the Cardinal comes to a poisonous end.
But the actor you'll remember most is Scott Wentworth, whose Bosola is perhaps the most fascinating character in the play.
Beginning as a melancholy cynic who schemes against the Duchess, he ends up being spiritually reborn, possibly even redeemed, through her power to inspire a hard-edged goodness in even the most reprobate of figures.