Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic

“I account this world a tedious theatre, for I do play a part in’t ‘gainst my will”

Usual caveats and all that, this was an early preview of The Duchess of Malfi that I caught at the Old Vic, and so bear that in mind throughout. Positive comments on previews never seem to cause any controversy but without giving too much away about the direction this review (of a preview) will take, that is hardly likely to be the issue here. I have to say that for the first time, especially at a big theatre, I really felt like I was watching something in the middle of its creative process, that really was still trying to find its feet. Which I suppose is what some would argue the preview period is about but when ticket prices of up to £45 are being charged, it does feel a bit rich.

Marking Jamie Lloyd’s directorial debut at the Old Vic, this revival of The Duchess of Malfi was largely most anticipated by me for attracting Eve Best back onto the London stage (though Lloyd’s treatment of She Stoops To Conquer also quite whetted the appetite). Her Beatrice in the Globe’s Much Ado About Nothing really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that I’ll remember for years to come, and so though it went against my natural instincts, I forked out for a good stalls seat (Row F) for this in anticipation of theatrical yumminess. What I got though was something else, a half-baked cake of a show with what feels like a set of serious misjudgements and lasted well over three hours.

This was first experience of The Duchess of Malfi (I’m choosing to skate over the Punchdrunk interpretation as little of it made any impact on me) and so I wonder how much of a difference that made for me. Upon being widowed, the Duchess takes a new lover, below her class, and marries him secretly as her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, are determined to control her life and when they find out what she has done, during which time she has had 3 children by him (although how she got away with this I’m not entirely sure), they exact a chilling, oppressive revenge on her. Continue reading “Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Old Vic”

DVD Review: The Shadow in the North

“I thought you had a bit of milk in your coconut”

The second (and last) of the Sally Lockhart Mysteries to be adapted for the television, The Shadow in the North very much pales in the shadow of The Ruby in the Smoke for me as the lesser of the two, which is a real shame as I did love the latter and felt it showed great promise in setting up the mini-franchise. This story sees Sally following up a client who has lost her savings after investing in a company, on Sally’s advice, which went bust suspiciously. The mysterious industrialist behind that company the Swedish Axel Bellman quickly set up again and so Sally’s instincts are aroused as she investigates the business dealings in order to get compensation for her client. But accusing such a powerful man of corruption and fraud sets her on a most dangerous course and puts the lives of those around her at severe risk.

So the ingredients are there, and the story is one I enjoyed reading, but something was just missing. The mystery never quite has the drive to keep the story going, the tone ends up being rather dour rather than dark and subsequently doesn’t grip like it ought. And its nature means that Billie Piper’s Sally is given less chance to interact with the key players around her – it is Pullman’s fault rather than the show’s but it is a real shame that Hayley Atwell’s Rosa is dispatched to marital bliss in the country within 10 minutes of the show starting as they made a great team. Instead, the personal intrigue is around whether Sally will admit to her feelings for JJ Feild’s Fred (still so handsome!) and Matt Smith’s Jim, thankfully no longer the narrator, hangs around like a bit of a spare part, though gets to do a lot of the investigating (bizarrely though off-screen and on his own…). Continue reading “DVD Review: The Shadow in the North”

Shows I am looking forward to in 2012

Though the temptation is strong, and the actuality may well prove so, I don’t think I will be catching quite so much theatre in 2012 as I did last year. I could do with a slightly better balance in my life and also, I want to focus a little more on the things I know I have a stronger chance of enjoying.

So, I haven’t booked a huge amount thus far, especially outside of London where I think I will rely more on recommendations, but here’s what I’m currently looking forward to the most: Continue reading “Shows I am looking forward to in 2012”

Review: Salome, Richmond Theatre

“You must not look at her. You look too much at her.”

Salome has quite some theatrical pedigree: presented by Rupert Goold’s Headlong company and directed by Donmar Associate Jamie Lloyd, Oscar Wilde’s one act tragedy based on the Biblical story has been radically refashioned into a bold new production currently touring the UK (Oxford, Newcastle and Brighton remain) before settling at the Hampstead Theatre for a month on 22nd June.

Set in a post-apocalyptic futuristic industrial hellhole somewhere in the Middle East, spoiled princess Salome takes a perverse fancy to Iokanaan (John the Baptist) despite or perhaps because of the grim prophecies he has for her mother, Herodias, and stepfather, the Tetrarch King Herod. It seems as if these prophecies, and the detestation both Herod and Herodias have for the prophet, are the reason for Salome’s sudden obsession but when Herod makes her an offer she can’t refuse involving a dance, the opportunistic princess sows the seeds for her own downfall.

After a slightly slow opening 15 minutes or so, Salome soon kicks into gear with a highly visual gore-filled, sexualised take on the well known Biblical story. Not recognisably Wildean it must be said, Jamie Lloyd has stripped it bare of its original idiosyncrasies and reconstructed a savage modern tale of 21st century sexuality which surprises rather than truly shocks but nevertheless develops into an engaging account of what is a largely familiar story.


As the titular Salome, Zawe Ashton is unashamedly shallow and sexual, portraying her as hopped up on something or other, her jittery hands unable to stop themselves from running over her body, alive to her sexuality but not yet fully aware of its power and the consequences of flaunting it so vividly. This awkwardness is perfectly played in the beginning of the infamous dance sequence, thoroughly updated here but imbued with a painful ungainliness exacerbated by the reaction of Herod (which is to masturbate furiously in the open court). Ashton has to deal with much of Wilde’s repetitive text, endlessly repeating two key phrases but she fills them with sufficient petulance to remind us that this is just an oversexualised kid.


As the tyrannical, testosterone-fuelled Herod, Con O’Neill is quite something: sexually hungry for men and women alike and unable to control his urges, leading to his rash promise that leads to the climactic demand. Physically he gave a magnificent portrayal of this rapacious despot and the human frailty beneath the swaggering, but I wasn’t 100% convinced by his vocal delivery, strangely high-pitched and mostly delivered at a bellow. Jaye Griffiths is vocally much stronger as his attention-hungry embittered wife and as a result becomes something of a focal point as probably the strongest performance onstage. Seun Shote’s Iokanaan deserves a special mention though: kept chained under a manhole, his first arrival from his prison kickstarts the show, his muscular presence rising from the deeps and spewing forth prophetic pronouncements with a powerful baritone. The rest of the ensemble is strong but there is little to distinguish them from one another, only Richard Cant’s heartbroken Page of Herodias stands out with his revelations about the true closeness of his friendship with the Young Syrian Sam Donovan.


The design by Soutra Gilmour is impressive, all the more so considering how it reinvents the traditional stage at Richmond and is a touring show, with a large square sandpit strewn with puddles of tar dominating the dungeon-like space, scaffolds and lighting rigs around the walls add to savagery of the landscape. Combined with very effective lighting and pulsing sound design, there is a great sense of atmosphere to this production culminating in the production of an extremely gory and effective severed head, and with a running time of just 90 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. All in all, something really quite different and interesting that you should make the effort to see.


Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3
Note: smoke, haze and scenes of a sexual nature abound in this production so probably not one for the sensitive.