Wicked Words

By Carnegy, Patrick | The Spectator, August 31, 2002 | Go to article overview

Wicked Words


Carnegy, Patrick, The Spectator


There are tmms; are there not, when it would be good to drop in, suitably disguised, on your enemies in order the better to observe and revenge yourself upon them. This, in a nutshell, is the plot of John Marston's The Malcontent, first given in 1603, and now rounding off the RSC's season at the Swan of rarities by Shakespeare's near-contemporaries. It's a season that's contained much to astonish and delight, a triumph for its organiser Gregory Doran and an energetic and gifted ensemble of 28 actors who've put on five plays in just under four months. There's productivity and value for you.

Like most of the other plays in the season The Malcontent is a weirdly wonderful piece of work. Usurped of his office as Duke of Genoa, his wife Maria imprisoned, Altofronto has somehow infiltrated himself into the court of Pietro, the usurping Duke, in the guise of Malevole, a Fool so filthy and malodorous that the wonder is he's there at all. Doubtless his presence has to be read symbolically as the festering sore at the heart of Pietro's governance.

Malevole's disguise affords him licence for the effrontery of `that which kings do seldom hear, or great men use - free speech'. In Dominic Cooke's production this is a very necessary counterpoint to the hedonistic decadence of a court which could be that of a despotic little regime in Latin America. It's a world of crisp white uniforms, a magnificently silly goose-step stomp and a fine array of talent leased out for a diamond or two by Claire Benedict's irresistibly savante 'Medam'. We're in a room in the ducal palace giving onto a balcony for ceremonial appearances to the populace. Without Malevole the regime would simply implode from its own boundless sense of self-importance.

The role is tailor-made for Antony Sher who plays it with an immensely sly relish, revelling in the part's lexicon of inexhaustible invective. Malevole's credo is of man's infinite capacity for wickedness and he's never disappointed. He discovers that once he's alerted the Duke to his wife Aurelia's infidelity he need do little more than watch his enemies fall into the traps which their lusts and ambitions set for them. In the end, of course, he gets his dukedom back but you get the feeling that his pleasure in this can never equal the fun he's had in whipping up the discomforture of his enemies. The antics of Sher's Malevole are as arresting a definition of schadenfreude as you're likely to find.

The play is a crackingly good one because of the skill with which Marston plays games with the villanies of human nature. The wickedness of the words is swept along in the pace of the plotting, the rapidity with which the women change lovers, the men their stratagems for disposing of each other. …

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