The Duchess's New Clothes Are the Real Tragedy-It's Friday Theatre

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL COVENEY

The Duchess Of Malfi (Royal National Theatre) Verdict: Great Renaissance tapestry unpicked in modern dress .....

Iron (Royal Court) Verdict: Another prison drama, smaller canvas, flies on a cutting edge .....

WOMEN in prison is the cheerful theme this week: one of them strangled for marrying beneath herself, the other incarcerated for killing her husband with a kitchen knife.

One's a definite victim of evil, the other's a probable victim of society.

All a bit Jacobean, you might think and, again, you'd be right. The Duchess Of Malfi by John Webster is one of the greatest plays in the English language, written nearly 400 years ago with a scenario of corruption, incest, revenge and lust.

Still, no actor should be expected to go mad in saggy white underpants - the sorry fate of Will Keen as the psychopathic Duke Ferdinand, brother of the otherwise unnamed Duchess in this production.

And no group of them should be made to look like a sparse crowd at a non-league football match.

Yet these things come to pass at the National, where this masterpiece is made to look like a dry run for The Sound Of Music on a bad night at the English National Opera.

Does Jacobean tragedy ever work in modern dress?

Not here it doesn't, for the glory of an Italian Renaissance court shrivels to a men-in-grey-suits power game, inexplicably stopping a widow from marrying again.

The Duchess seduces a steward (the programme fatuously evokes Princess Diana and James Hewitt), has three children by him, goes into exile and is strangled in full view of the audience. Her principal torturers are her own brothers: the mad Duke and a lecherous cardinal.

This central trio, played by Janet McTeer, Mr Keen and Ray Stevenson, are mostly colourless.

McTeer is a great actress, the nearest to a young Vanessa Redgrave we have - tall and radiant, effortlessly emotional. Yet this is a dull performance, resorting to silly hysteria instead of psychological collapse.

Why the football terrace? The cast comes down to play then reassembles when killed, a gallery of corpses that is director Phyllida Lloyd's one good-ish idea. But there is no terror, no glamour. And the glorious language is skidded over, often inaudibly. Instead of grand passion we have grim mumbling.

[broken (vertical) bar] PRISON dramas can be liberating but also restrictive.

Rona Munro's Iron, a highlight of last year's Edinburgh Festival, slowly works its way into a larger series of statements: a murder may have been a mistake, the survivors may find redemption.

Fay has served 15 years for killing her husband.

Her daughter, Josie, a welltravelled executive in her 20s and too young to remember the crime, pays her first visit to the prison.

It seems to take an awfully long time to get to the point. There are echoing night sounds (as in Malfi), conversations with warders, speeches of guilt and reminiscence, and a sense of drifting towards some holy explanation of the unspeakable event.

But Munro and her director, Roxana Silbert, bide their time to unveil a series of circumstances that neither justify nor mitigate the crime. …