Around the time that my interest in the theatre developed in the early 1980s, there seemed to be a general resurgence in interest in staging the English Jacobean plays of the early 1600s. Within a few years I was able to see productions of such plays as John Webster’s The White Devil, Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Thomas Middleton ‘s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling and John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.
To me, as to others, the plays’ mixing of sex and violent death was undoubtedly part of their attraction. The plots of most of the above involve promiscuity, adultery, murder, corruption, deception and hypocrisy within aristocratic Italian or Spanish (ie Catholic) families.
Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is one play which has maintained popularity, judging by the fact that during the past few months I have been able to see it three times : just revived by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and televised on BBC4, live at the Edinburgh Fringe in a production by UCLU Runaground and in a 1972 BBC version currently available on You Tube.
The performances in that 1972 version are slowly and precisely delivered, with appropriate pauses, powerfully evoking how plotting, betrayal and treachery progresses while the characters appear to observe the correct niceties of behaviour. For example, the scene of the first attraction between the Duchess and the lower-class Antonio, their anxiety and nervousness fighting against desire, is marvellously done.
The newer BBC4 version tended to be brisker. This may say something about the greater challenge of delivering a dense text complete on stage compared to recording with the benefit of editing and multiple takes. Another factor is that almost certainly the younger generation of actors will have had less experience of this sort of allusive metaphorical verse. The 1972 cast includes many who continued after this to have careers which were distinguished and widely ranged : Eileen Atkins as the Duchess, plus Michael Bryant, T.P. McKenna and Charles Kay. In contrast, the publicity for the 2014 version concentrated on their Duchess, Gemma Arterton, probably because she had been in James Bond and St Trinian’s films – although her performance here is perfectly fine. Sean Gilder, who had just appeared in the very different The Selfish Giant, is also highly competent in the key role of villain-victim Bosola.
There are moments of comedy and irony in the play, and you will always notice these more often in a live performance, but I did feel that James Gardon, playing the Cardinal at the Globe , does sometimes veer too far in that direction.
I recall that there was a TV fashion during the 1970s for performing classic plays in period buildings and outdoors, and this was such an example. According to IMDB it was filmed at Chastleton House in Oxfordshire, which is now in the care of the National Trust. The latter’s website says that it was owned by “an increasingly impoverished family” until 1991, which may explain why they might have been keen to let it out for a TV production. A large number of spaces are used, indoors and out. It looks and sounds brilliant around the actors in their period costumes, although there is little in James MacTaggart’s production which would not have worked equally well in a London TV studio.
This version was not part of the BBC’s long-running Play of the Month although it now looks identical. It appears to have been part of another series called Stage 2 which might have been a strand of more “adult” plays, or more “adult” treatments, since here we actually see the Cardinal in bed with his married lover Julia, and she is shown unclothed in a couple of brief shots. In contrast, the 2014 stage production shows Julia always fully clothed and, unsurprisingly, the 17th century stage directions give no suggestion that she should not be fully dressed.
Only in the ending is Dominic Dromgoole’s Globe staging a bit unusual. The dead characters rise up and enter into a sequence of uneasy movements which suggest a film being rewound. Perhaps the point is that the tragedy we have witnessed is the consequence of a plan which might have been carried out quite differently; perhaps also to remind us that several murders have just taken place without damaging the glossy surface of the ducal court.
Both these productions perform the text fully. The UCLU Runaground company, in contrast, reduced it to 90 minutes, although that is still a substantial length for a serious drama at the Fringe these days. Although confined to a tiny basement space, their staging worked well, and the young cast performed capably. The design was suitably black, symbolising formal religion as well as death and tragedy. From memory a wooden confessional box was a part of the stage set and some plainchant and church bells were successful elements of the sound. Certainly their publicity drew attention to the theme of religious hypocrisy with a photo of a crucifix lying across a scantily clad bosom.
Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is strictly a Caroline drama rather than Jacobean, since it was written in the later reign of King Charles rather than that of King James, but it presents a similar story in a similar way to The Duchess of Malfi. A BBC version of ‘Tis Pity directed in 1980 by future Oscar nominee Roland Joffé transferred the setting, as I recall, from hot dissolute Renaissance Italy to cool amoral Victorian England. Its excellent cast included Kenneth Cranham, Cherie Lunghi and Tim Pigott-Smith and I hope one day to see it screened again.