Cover Her Face
This new version of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi hits the mark
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Finally, the Duchess of Malfi makes sense. To modern eyes, the inexplicable hatred of two brothers for their sister can seem baffling, but when it becomes their defiantly Other brother, things fall into place perfectly.
This ridiculously sexy production moves the play from a long ago Italian Court to London, 1959. Two aristocrats (one an MP) discover that their sibling likes to dress up in ballgowns and call themselves the Duchess. If this becomes known, they face social ruin, and so embark on a plot of vicious murder.
The Duchess lives a life of flamboyance and fabulous parties at the Malfi nightclub. Her respectable brothers inhabit a seedy world of rent boys and gangsters.
Cut to under two hours (hooray!) with no interval (double hooray!), Webster's play is still fearsomely wordy. But if you sometimes have no idea what the people are saying, they look wonderful while they're doing it.
In a lot of productions the complicatedly filthy dialogue comes across either as obscure flirting or "I'm just out of drama school, would you like to see my nips?". Here it becomes a seductive Polari, and yes, you also get to see a lot of nips.
What is the Duchess? Transvestive, transgender or simply having a great time? The production doesn't specify, instead flinging around personal pronouns with clever aplomb. The Duchess is the Duchess. You never feel that Webster's play has been hamfistedly rewritten in a Dalston kitchen by a group of people struggling to fit a clever idea to modern self-identification politics. It just works.
In an strong ensemble cast, La JohnJoseph predictably dominates as the Duchess. Looking curiously like a hot young Margaret Thatcher, the Duchess has found a way of living their life that works, and is baffled by and regally dismissive of people who just don't get it.
Jack Johns is the Tory MP who takes his anger out on rent boys and Tom Cuthbertson is the brother whose tiny mind explodes. Ranged against them are Tom Campion (as the lover who falls for the Duchess whatever they are) and veteran cabaret performer Nigel Osner as a black-stockinged chorus soaked in gin.
This may be wildly different, but it is the Duchess of Malfi still.
Until 15 February, Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, Pollard Row, London
Get tickets HERE