One day, two plays – The Duchess of Malfi and Step 9 (of 12)

With my boyfriend away in Edinburgh the other weekend I decided to spend a day on my lonesome in London, watching a play and losing myself in the myriad of bookshops, and considering the price of the train ticket to get there I thought I may as well see two plays to make it worth my while. The second of these, The Duchess of Malfi (Webster) directed by Jamie Lloyd, was impressive, but not the highlight of the day. I’m a big fan of Jamie Lloyd and his work with Polar Bears (which I directed for an in-house production last summer), The Pride and The Faith Machine, and was equally impressed with his staging of this – a moody and atmospheric set, which the impressive size of the Old Vic stage lent itself perfectly to, the choreographed candle-bearers in hooded cloaks, and the overall underlying menace he managed to instil into the whole production really brought to life the underlying themes of the play. Acting was strong, especially Eve Best as the Duchess, but there were moments where it dragged a little, and when several key characters had died so quickly and violently, waiting for Bosola to finally pop his clogs you wanted to yell, “just get on with it!”.

The Duchess’ death scene was chillingly brilliant, the anticipation building as we waited with a macabre fascination for the moment when they pulled on the ropes to strangle her. The way Best’s body jerked and writhed about gave me a genuine chill. Harry Lloyd as the violent and volatile brother Ferdinand was pure perfection, showing a man torn between emotions and societal pressures – I hear he’s in Game of Thrones so will be checking that out! I did enjoy the play, but the second act couldn’t match the pace of the first, and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t sympathise with the character of Bosola and his actions. I know many consider Webster’s language to be even more complex to interpret than Shakespeare, so perhaps I just wasn’t in a receptive mood.

The first of the two plays I saw, however, affected me deeply. It turned out that the two plays were not only very different pieces set in different times and with different circumstances, but also staged very differently, one on a grand scale in the Old Vic, the other in a small cosy studio space in the Trafalgar Studios 2, which added a nice bit of variety to my day!

Step 9 (of 12), a play by Rob Hayes, tells the story of Keith, a recovering alcoholic, as he tries to apologise to those he has hurt the most with his destructive behaviour, and featured Blake Harrison of The Inbetweeners fame. Having loved him on screen as the lanky simpleton Neil, I was keen to see what else he could do as an actor, and I can happily say I wasn’t disappointed! Although the first ten or so minutes moved rather slowly with the jokes a little forced and I felt he was shouting out the lines for the room to hear rather than directing them at his fellow actors, the pace soon picked up with smart dialogue and troubled yet realistic characters that were brought to life brilliantly by all concerned. Harrison showed an ability to snap from light-hearted nice guy to menacing in an instant; equally from menacing young man to vulnerable little boy. The moments where he was begging his foster mother to forgive him and calling her ‘mum’ for what we deduce is probably the first time ever were heartbreaking, and the tears in his eyes brought tears to my own, as I had to stop myself from running on stage to give this suffering little boy a big hug and tell him everything would be alright. The beauty of the piece being performed in such an intimate space is that you really did feel a part of the action, and that you were witnessing a private conversation between a troubled family rather than watching a play on a stage, detached from the characters and their lives.

Barry McCarthy as the protagonist Keith’s foster father gave a beautiful performance, struggling to hide the inner turmoil beneath a veneer of amiability. The contrast between this ‘mask’ he wore at the start of the play, showing a guy who just wants to get along with and support Keith’s endeavours, and the true hurt and struggle that lived within was played with expert empathy and showed an actor who truly understands the complexity of the human condition. Wendy Nottingham as the foster mother was at times a little vocally ‘flat’ but played a woman scarred by her experiences beautifully, and at the point where the character Mark was threatening them the fear in her eyes was haunting. Ben Dilloway as Mark, the son of a man who Keith had put in hospital with permanent brain damage, gave a short but powerful performance. A mess of pain and wanting vengeance for what was done to his father, Dilloway played him perfectly, wrenching even the hardiest heart in the audience out of its chest.

The play is brilliant. The humour was there at every turn and the audience was often chuckling at this or that. Awkward conversations and moments were interspersed with dry humour and left us not sure whether it was appropriate to laugh or not, causing us to question our own reactions to the characters and their actions. The staging was thoughtful and made good use of the space. Keith’s front door being situated off stage made us use our ears rather than just being fed everything visually, and helped create a sense of tension as you heard the slam and awaited the arrival of a character. An impressive West End debut for Harrison, a powerful yet poignant performance by McCarthy, and a success for the director Tom Attenborough and his creative team. Oh, and hats off to Rob Hayes for a bloody good play.

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