Mini-review – Duchess of Malfi – Old Vic Theatre

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Why, I wondered, would the Old Vic be hustling Duchess of Malfi tickets on every forum possible, promising two for ones, upgrades, free drinks, and what have you from shortly after the play opened? If you’d been trying to get a ticket for their long and popular run of Noises Off, this was a completely new experience. Previously, The Old Vic couldn’t get you a seat anywhere no matter how much you were willing to pay; but now they … if I was reading it right … they couldn’t seem to find anyone to watch their show at any price. Not very reassuring given that I’d bought the tickets weeks before opening and couldn’t exactly trade them in for something else.

If nothing else I was relieved that my crummy (and expensive) full price second balcony tickets were upgraded to stalls (row O!), so I didn’t have to be bitter about all of the people who had got better seats that me for less. As it turned out, we’d booked in for the closed captioned night, so the audience was full of people signing to each other from across the room. Being able to talk to someone in the first balcony when you were in the stalls without disturbing your neighbors – how neat was that! And there was a REALLY snazzy set on stage that looked like it was pulled straight from an early Renaissance painting made to demonstrate the principles of perspective – three levels of church-looking balconies inside of a stone box (on three sides) – I was reminded of the La Cuba palace in Palermo, inspiration for part of the Decameron.

However, instead of Classic Literature Done Live, what we got was … well, revenge tragedy, which was classic literature, only without any expectation of the characters to become interesting … or really to change at all over the course of the play, except to go mad. The bad people are pointed out at the beginning and stay bad (or get worse). The only character that’s the least bit interesting is the duchess herself, who is trying to have a life of her own in a society where, although a widow, she is still basically chattel.

Unfortunately one person does not an engrossing night make. I was assisted in killing time by the captioning screens, which allowed me to follow the dialogue more closely than I would have managed on my own, and by the incredibly inept person who left their cellphone on during the interval, thus creating a profoundly memorable moment as the Duchess is slowly strangled to the theme song of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It’s the small things, right? Otherwise, the best thing I can say about the evening (other than the wonderful company I had) was the scene near the end where the Duchess’ commonlaw husband is creeping through the ruins of a cloister, hoping to end the feud between the brothers Malfi and himself. As he speaks of his hopes for reconciliation, the duchess’ ghostly voice repeats back his words in an attempt to warn him off. Let me quote this to you:

ANTONIO: Echo, I will not talk with thee,
For thou art a dead thing.

ECHO: Thou art a dead thing.

I mean SERIOUSLY DO NOT GO INTO THE BASEMENT. But he has to, because is a revenge tragedy, and everyone has to die, and all you can do is just wait it out until the final curtain. But really, that scene with the echo, it was great, but I’ll probably tell more people about that stupid cell phone, because after two and a half hours of BLOOD BLOOD SEX DEATH EVIL MORE DEATH MADNESS SCREAMING a little humor was a thing of beauty, indeed.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 15th, 2012. It continues through June 9th. This may possibly be a perfect production of this play, but I must remember in the future I do not care for the revenge tragedy. Maybe some day I’ll get to see Noises Off, though. I do like a good laugh.)

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One Response to “Mini-review – Duchess of Malfi – Old Vic Theatre”

  1. xobeksxo Says:

    This is such a helpful review, thank you… can cross that off my summer to-do list. I think revenge tragedy in general tends to be like you describe. It’s a problem of time-distance, I think. They were very much in vogue for a little bit of the 16th century and I don’t think we now, expecting psychological realism and exciting plot progression, can really appreciate what the original audience would have found compelling.

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