Playing at London’s The Old Vic until 9 June is a splendid staging by director Jamie Lloyd of John Webster’s great Jacobean tragedy. Forty years ago director James MacTaggart made a distinguished version of the play for BBC Television that is available in thirteen parts on YouTube (although it is missing the end credits) – and it is this recording that is the subject of my post. Shooting on videotape on location at Chastleton House, MacTaggart achieves a fluid and compelling production that is entirely credible (far from easy through the second-half bloodbath). Among its strengths are a stately but vibrant performance by Eileen Atkins as the Duchess and some truly remarkable chiaroscuro camera work. This is part one:
British television has tackled no other drama by Webster, but what is undoubtedly his best-known play has been given, in addition to MacTaggart’s 1972 version, on two other occasions. Royston Morley oversaw a live production on 17 January 1938, and an anonymous review in The Listener offers a vivid impression of the presentation:
The whole production smacked of the artifice of the theatre and not of the reality of the movies. The action was cramped, sometimes painfully so, but on the whole the manipulation of characters within the small space was the most skilful I have seen. So far, excellent? Did I then enjoy the production? Yes, because something of Webster’s quality came through whenever Bosola (Mr Esmé Percy) was speaking. But was the performance as a whole a good one? No, certainly not. The play was so savagely cut that we were left with a melodrama of almost unbelievable crudity in place of Webster’s rich, violent complicated picture of Renaissance corruption. There was a good deal of ‘fluffing’ of lines and one actor even had to be prompted (with ludicrous effect) by his partner in a close up. (‘Broadcast drama: The Duchess of Malfi‘, 2 February 1938, p. 240)
Also live and also unrecorded, a post-war production by Stephen Harrison in December 1949 seems to have been little better, at least according to Harold Hobson’s critique:
The announcer cheered us up at the start by stating that a lot of it would take place in almost complete darkness. With this to whet our appetites, we went into a riot of ornate costumes, Gothic arches, and increasing boredom. Miss Irene Worth’s wide smile and turned-up nose did not suit the long-suffering Duchess, and none of the players seemed willing to trust to the full flood of Webster’s beautifully filthy rhetoric. They chopped it up, they tried to make it realistic, they lost its baleful magic. (‘Television: varied fare’, The Listener, 15 December 1949, p. 1066)
The Duchess of Malfi in 1972 comes from a moment that we might think of as a high-water mark for productions of classical theatre on television. In the early 1970s ITV continued to present occasional classics, including Hamlet directed by Peter Wood from ATV for Sunday Night Theatre in August 1971. On BBC1 Play of the Month, offering nine major productions each year, was a Sunday night fixture. In 1970 BBC Television committed to an additional three two-hour productions of classic plays for BBC2 under the series title Stage 2, and this short strand ran from 1971 to 1973. (William Smart, ‘Old Wine in New Bottles: Adaptations of Classic Theatrical Plays on BBC Television 1957-1982’, PhD Thesis Royal Holloway College 2010, p. 101n.) Produced by Cedric Messina, as was Play of the Month, Stage 2 in 1972 included Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw, as well as The Duchess of Malfi (which was made as a co-production with Time-Life Films).
Two notable stage productions of The Duchess of Malfi appeared the year before the 1972 television presentation, one by Peter Gill at London’s Royal Court and another directed by Clifford Williams for the Royal Shakespeare Company. In her introduction to the Arden Early Modern Drama edition of the play, Leah S. Marcus notes that at the time, ‘literary critics were beginning to devote new attention to questions like patriarchal domination in the play and its connection with early seventeenth-century history and cultural artefacts.’ (The Duchess of Malfi, London: Arden Shakespeare, 2009, p. 106) She suggests that Williams’ production ‘was self-consciously based on emerging Webster criticism from the universities’. James MacTaggart’s approach, however, while relishing the decorative elements of its early seventeenth century setting, adopts a more conventional psychological reading of the drama.
Chastleton House, its gardens and the adjacent parkland – all of which are used to considerable effect – ground the events of the play in a recognisably English milieu, which also acts to distance the action from its Italian court setting and associated political concerns. (The house was completed in 1612, Webster’s play was first performed in 1613 or 1614.) Cuts to the text reinforce the evacuation of the political context, with the lost scenes including the important opening exchange between Delio and Antonio about the ‘fixed order’ of the French court as well as the whole of Act V Scene 1 with its detailed discussion of a land ownership issue.
The influential literary critic Raymond Williams was television critic of The Listener at the time of the first transmission. In his informed review he contrasted what he described as ‘a relatively straight production’ with earlier understandings of the play which stressed ‘the arbitrariness of the violence, the exhibited distortions of the sexual feelings, the conscious playings with the bizarre and the insane’:
Perhaps the main reason for the straightness with which it was played was that it was set in a great house, so that the realism of a social location was persistently stressed. Also, the text, with less cuts than is usual, was respected in the speaking […] And then, as in the original, this spoken action created an active dimension within which the spectacular horrors were significant rather than instrumental or isolated. (‘Versions of Webster’, 19 October 1972, p. 515)
The plot of The Duchess of Malfi, briefly, centres on a widowed Duchess (who has no name, only a title) and her two brothers, one of whom is a cardinal. Neither brother wishes to see her marry again, in part to protect the good name of the family but also because Ferdinand, who is not a cardinal, harbours an incestuous sexual jealousy. The Duchess secretly marries a member of her household, Antonio, and the brothers eventually discover this by means of their spy, Bosola. The Duchess flees, is captured, and psychologically tortured – there is a notorious scene set in which in pitch darkness she receives what she believes to be the hand of her dead lover. Her death by the agency of Bosola spurs his moral reawakening, but despite this he is only one of many who meet their death, messily, in the final act.
MacTaggart for much of the time plays down the horror, just as he encourages his cast to mute the passions that can be drawn from the text. In many ways, this is a low-key, almost introverted Malfi, and as such it is all the more effective on the screen. At the Old Vic Eve Best brings a fizzing, flirty energy to the early scenes, whereas Eileen Atkins is measured and controlled from the start. Her resigned dignity in the moments before she is strangled is particularly impressive, but prior to this her marriage is perhaps felt as motivated as much by convenience as love or lust.
Michael Bryant’s Bosola is more than a match for the Duchess, and the translation of his monologues to interior speech, spoken in voiceover, reinforces his psychological complexity. In his PhD thesis, The Dangerous Edge of Things: John Webster’s Bosola in Context and Performance (available online as a .pdf here), John Buckingham describes Bryant’s characterisation as that of a ‘solemn existential loner’ (p. 139). With a detailed visual analysis (pp. 197-204), Buckingham argues that Bryant’s Bosola is foregrounded in the production by the use of visual composition, by his distinctive dress and by the use, early in the play, of voiceover for his monologues.
Buckingham also neatly uses comparative visuals to make the point that the Duchess’ splendid dresses are strongly suggestive of Elizabeth I’s in contemporary paintings, just as Ferdinand (played by Charles Kay) wears costumes with distinct echoes of the depictions of James I. As he writes, ‘Such resonances may be unintentional, simply stemming from the sources used for costume design.’ (pp. 196-197) Yet Leah S. Marcus explores in detail how the Duchess aligns with the ‘increased interest in drama of the Jacobean era [that] can be correlated with nostalgia for the reign of Elizabeth I and values she had posthumously come to represent’. (The Duchess of Malfi, London: Arden Shakespeare, 2009, p. 11) Similarly, the corruption of the court of James I, which was seen by many as proto-Catholic, can be taken to be Webster’s target in his vision of Ferdinand’s world and that of his cardinal brother. James MacTaggart’s setting of the play in the English setting of Chastleton is brilliantly suggestive of these understandings.
By 1972, James MacTaggart was BBC television drama’s most respected producer. As Oliver Wake’s profile for the British Television Drama website details, MacTaggart ‘was responsible for numerous stylistic experiments and technical innovations in the medium from the early 1960s until the mid-1970s.’ He was central to the formal experiments of Troy Kennedy Martin, Ken Loach, John McGrath and others in the early 1960s, and from 1965 he was the producer of the often controversial strand of contemporary drama The Wednesday Play. In the early 1970s he pioneered the use of electronic post-production techniques, and especially the employment of Colour Separation Overlay techniques, in his productions of Candide and Alice Through the Looking Glass (both BBC, 1973). He died suddenly in May 1974, at the age of 46 and less than two years after The Duchess of Malfi, having just returned from a filming trip to Tonago where he was shooting an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe.
The Duchess of Malfi exhibits none of the electronic trickery of Candide or Alice…, but its location-based videotape camerawork is just as bold and equally cutting-edge. There is a fluid quality to much of the camera movement, as with the continuous track back (lasting 1′ 42″) with the Duchess saying farewell to her brothers in front of the house. Note too the effortless use of the different levels of the house, with several scenes being set on staircases, indicating perhaps uncertainty and a lack of fixity.
The most notable feature of the production, however, is that many of the interior scenes make extraordinary use of shadows and deep pools of darkness. Subtle lighting, sometimes seemingly from candlelight alone, picks out just the silhouettes of characters. Bright doorways are set far back in frames with the most minimal foreground detail. This is a dark, dangerous domain, suggestive, as John Buckingham notes, of film noirs of the 1940s and early 1950s with their ‘shadows and menace, an appropriate metaphor for an uncertain world of treachery and murder’. (The Dangerous Edge of Things, pp. 205-206)
The visual contrast, literally, with harshly overlit studio dramas of the time (such as the 1974 Play of the Month production of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean drama The Changeling) is remarkable, and the achievement of MacTaggart and his team (Tommy Thomas is credited as ‘lighting technician’) is all the more extraordinary given the comparatively crude technical development of videotape recording at the time. It is also encouraging that the copy on YouTube shows little sign of the degradation of the recorded video image that afflicts other recordings from the 1970s.
Many television productions of stage plays from forty years ago (and sometimes much less) require a certain sympathetic understanding, even forgiveness, to be watched with pleasure today. We are required to recognise the constraints of the studio, the limitations of its imposed aesthetic, the impediments of limited time and modest budgets. James MacTaggart’s The Duchess of Malfi, however, needs no such apology, even if its many virtues will likely have to wait a while (and at least until a legal DVD or online release) for appropriate acknowledgement.