Friday, February 7, 2014

Dr Faustus vs The Duchess of Malfi

Who would win in a fight between Dr Faustus and the Duchess of Malfi? This question bugged me as I contemplated seeing two major Enlightenment performances in one day. It was a difficult one to call . . . Faustus was clever and powerful; the Duchess, sexy and spirited . . . Mmmm.

Such musings aside, rattling down the rails towards London, I viewed the prospect of the forthcoming dramatic marathon with excitement, conscious that this day could mark the point when my Bardoholicism escalated to an addiction to English renaissance plays generally. I mean, talk about dabbling with crack cocaine. John Webster's tragedy, the very first production at the new Sam Wanamaker theatre at the Globe? Then, a couple of hours later, Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus, performed in the remains of the Rose Theatre, the very place it was performed 420 years ago? Reckless behaviour. I really had no chance.

Strolling from Kings X down towards the river I passed the homes of many great, and not so great, former Londoners. Thomas Carlyle, Kenneth Williams, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Dr Johnson .  . .and eventually reached the Globe. I had managed to secure the very last ticket in the entire run of Malfi, a ten quid standing job on the last row of the upper balcony, which had - my booking webpage informed me - "a severely restricted view". Shuffling along a raised platform to find my place, however, I was pleasantly surprised by the view and acoustics. Not to be feared at all.

The theatre itself is a wonder to behold. Sam Wanamaker, the visionary behind the Globe (and father to actress Zoe), envisioned plays being performed all year round. The completion of the theatre this year marked the completion of this vision. It is a building within a building, with a roof -   a near perfect reconstruction of an indoor Elizabethan/ Jacobean dramatic space, all made of wood, supported by pillars, and - get this - illuminated purely by candle light. I thought the result would be gloomy, and was prepared not to like it. Not a bit of it. The candles brought the space to life in a much more dynamic, interesting way than brute electric lamps.

The music in the gallery petered out, and the play began . .

The Duchess of Malfi was first  performed in 1613, and it has divided critics and audiences ever since, largely because of its gratuitous violence and the unrepentant sexuality of the Duchess. For these reasons, the play has had long spells out of rep altogether; however, the 20th century saw its re-admittance into the canon of great plays, with fierce advocates such as TS Eliot and WH Auden.

The story is about corruption, class and the subjugation of women. It is dominated by the Duchess, a rich widow, whose brothers forbade her to marry again, so that they could keep the inheritance intact. A young, spirited and passionate woman, however, she fell in love with, and married a man of lower status; and thus had to keep the arrangement secret. Three kids later, however, the facade was crumbling, and her brothers got wind of the situation. Here indeed were the brothers from Hell.  Her elder brother, a Cardinal was an evil, machiavellian,  intemperate man, disposed to acts of cruelty and depravity. Worse still, her twin, Ferdinand, was mentally unstable and prone to fits of jealousy, betrayal, greed,  revenge. Not good news for the duchess, who had dared to go against their word.

Through the machinations of the complex, melancholic figure of Bosola, Ferdinand tried to traumatise her, and drive her mad through revealing a waxwork of her dead husband and child (though they were actually still alive at the time); and through inviting lunatics to invade her privacy. I said the brothers were nasty. Eventually, the long suffering duchess is strangled. Pathetically, then, Ferdinand comes to her body and regrets what has happened, uttering the lines, "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young."

Gemma Arterton as the Duchess is a joy to behold. Perfectly cast, she exudes modernity, intelligence and integrity and  lights up the stage with a proud sexuality. She is, however, surrounded by the dark forces of bigotry, corruption and opportunism; and, ultimately, darkness prevails. This interplay between light and dark was explored skillfully throughout the play by the use and positioning of the candles. Arterton's chemistry with the delightful Alex Waldmann, who played her husband, was vivid and charming.  Her portrayal of strength and dignity in the face of insufferable insult and violence was electrifying. A performance like this affirms and invigorates; and, like everybody else in the theatre that afternoon, I fell in love with the Duchess.

But this was not a one woman show. James Gardon as the Cardinal was entertainingly dissolute, and Sean Gilder was fascinating as the devious but ultimately moralistic Bosola. Denise Gough was great as the coquettish, dangerous Julia; and David Dawson's Ferdinand was compelling as he became increasingly repulsive. Needless to say, they all died horribly - this is John Webster, after all.

I left the bloodbath . . . I mean the theatre  . . . with just time for a red wine, then went onto meet friends M and AK for a quick meal and catch up. Onto the Rose Theatre. This could not have been a more different experience. We entered a small, cold ante-room, where there was a table with cans of beer and small plaster busts of Shakespeare for sale. A pretty young woman with a bobble hat next to us rubbed her gloves together and said she had come prepared. We were shown into the "theatre" in the archaeological dig, which consisted of a daunting looking desk with some books on it, and a chair - that's it. It was all rather intimidating, even before Christopher Staines took a seat and distractedly glanced around the assembled.

What proceeded was one of the most astonishing performances - of anything - I have ever seen. Christopher Staines took on the whole cast of Faustus himself, and rendered the script as a kind of internal/ infernal monologue leading to madness and death. As is well known, the play itself has a menacing theme, being about a brilliant academic, who, dissatisfied with the limitations of human knowledge, sells his soul to the devil for twenty four years of being able to do . . . and know . . anything. This menacing - indeed borderline blasphemous - play had electrifying effects on the original audiences in the same place 420 years before. In one performance, apparently, Faustus' incantations summoned up real demons, who were seen by a whole audience, leading to mass trauma, and one of the lead actors - Edward Alleyne - repenting and dutifully performing good works for the rest of his life, including the foundation of Dulwich College.

If anybody could raise real demons in London this night, it was Christopher Staines, whose already daring performance gave way to fifteen minutes of tightrope rant. This led him to tear down the curtain behind him, to reveal the illuminated circle of the original Rose Theatre. He careered around this like a madman, yelping out weird, unstable narratives and paradoxes . . . ending up with him back at his desk, toying with the idea of Marlowe spinning in his grave. Staines then returned to the orthodox text, which crescendoed to a desperate plea to God to save his soul.

This was strong stuff indeed, which had me laughing, wincing, sinking into the allure of utter, unbridled freedom; and the dread of eternal torture. At the end of this, we clapped and gaped at this astonishing performance, in the very place it had been performed all those years ago. Rather than spinning in his grave, I suspect Marlowe was nodding in approval.

Outside, London glittered and shone. The day's dramatic journey had subtly recast my view of the city, and deepened my appreciation of its endless creative currents. By the Thames that night, we clinked whiskies and chuckled at our good fortune - being here, now.

As I walked up Borough High Street to my hotel, my mind returned to the burning question of the day. On the evidence of these plays, who would win a fight - Faustus or the Duchess of Malfi?

Of course, Faustus could do anything he wanted, and could, merely by wishing it, destroy the Duchess. However, having set eyes on her, he wouldn't want to. The Duchess would pace to his desk, and close his books, and calm his fears of Hell. The Duchess would smile; and she and Faustus would take a bow.

That's how all fights should end. 

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