Mad Jacobean plays like The Duchess of Malfi come in and out of fashion. At the moment they are comparatively hot, in the wake of some high-profile revivals of Middleton, Webster and Jonson (including another Duchess at the Old Vic) and in anticipation of the purpose-built Jacobean-style Sam Wanamaker playhouse opening in a few months' time. It is also The Duchess of Malfi's four hundredth birthday this year, making Eyestrings' production – first staged in the much smaller White Bear last year – particularly timely.
The trouble is that these plays still have a fairly niche appeal, so audiences are likely to be split between those who are intimately familiar with Webster's idiosyncrasies, and those who just don't know what to expect. Eyestrings are relying heavily on the majority of their audience falling into the first category; stripped down to a cast of seven and six wooden chairs, their version privileges spooky effect above plot and character motivation.
The set-up is relatively straightforward: the widowed Duchess of Malfi goes against the wishes of her two brothers (Ferdinand and the unnamed "Cardinal") by remarrying and, worse, marrying Antonio, who is not just a commoner but her own butler. Her brothers respond with an elaborate plot involving madmen, severed limbs, wax corpses and ultimately an awful lot of murders, not to mention an eleventh-hour dash of "lycanthropia". Meanwhile, Bosola, initially a spy placed in the Duchess' household by one of her brothers, switches his loyalty so frequently that the last act seems to gleefully surrender all attempts at narrative coherence.
There is a kind of reckless pleasure in going along with the play's wanton carnage, and Beatrice Walker's dignified but vulnerable Duchess is a sympathetic human figure at the centre of it all. Unfortunately, the plot is somewhat clouded by gimmicky staging. At the beginning, the cast are seated on chairs spaced out across the stage, grinning manically at the audience, which they continue to do whenever they aren't speaking for most of the first few acts. Keeping the spare cast members on stage constantly has the effect of making convoluted plots even more disorienting than they need to be, and also slightly inhibits movement for those involved in the scene.
In the later scenes, the other actors either lurk at the back of the space or stalk around like ghosts. The complete blackout when the Duchess is imprisoned and terrorised by Ferdinand is genuinely disturbing, as are the sudden bouts of shrill, hysterical laughter which punctuate certain scenes. The most violent moments are underscored by solemnly intoning the stage directions, though these actions – "they strangle her," "he stabs him" – are fairly clear even without this extra help. Although the fight scenes are energetic, they are curiously anaemic – the act of stabbing someone to death is refigured as a particularly aggressive hug – making this possibly the least gory production of The Duchess of Malfi ever staged. Director Owen Horsley is an associate of critical darlings Cheek by Jowl, and some of the staging tricks are very reminiscent of that company's 2012 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, particularly the heap of corpses arranged in a Hieronymous Bosch-style tableau at the very end.
On the whole, the production looks stylish, but although the manic grinning is suitably unsettling, the abstract staging is a bit earnest, defusing the gleeful quality of the play's nastiness. There is also a heavy-handed attempt to make the unpredictable Bosola more consistent and sympathetic, and although I enjoyed Phil Cairns' agonised performance, this more reasonable version of the character took the bite out of some of his actions, especially in the chaotic final segment.
This is fundamentally a very assured production of a troubled classic, but for me the elements didn't quite come together and the heavily stylised direction failed to bring out the best of the play.