In this jubilee year, few have escaped exposure to the image of the British royal family, resplendent in their robes of state, gathering on the balustraded balcony of Buckingham Palace to greet their ardent subjects massed in the Mall before them. But secretly, haven't we all longed to peep behind those voluminous net curtains, dreamt of that moment when they pass out of view behind the vast blackness of glass that separates them from us, to see what they really do at moments like these. Laugh, congratulate, commiserate or express unbridled ennui.
It is this inner sanctum of state, with towering beshuttered window opening out onto the regal balcony beyond, which greets the audience at the Swan Theatre, Stratford 's latest production of John Marston's Jacobean 'tragicomedy' The Malcontent. But this is no western constitutional monarchy eager to adapt to the vicissitudes of marketing and media exposure, but an 'other', a banana-republic of proto-fascist-swan-stepping-flip-up-sunglassed-white-flair-uniformed-gun-toting-sash-wearing-retro-seventies followers of a junta led by the puppet Duke Pietro, usurper to the dukedom of Genoa.
Immediately the sense of corruption and vice within this court of fawning lackeys, procuresses, aristocratic prostitutes and intriguing Machiavellians is tangible. Decadence is rife in the state of Genoa, and the dogs at court are about to attack and consume each other.
High up in a dingy garret room above the ducal palace, lit by the lone spirit of an unshaded bulb, resides the foul-mouthed, fouler-haired, rancid clothed cynic, the malcontent, whose ranting against the vice-ridden courtiers is accepted rather like the extravagant utterings of a jester, with as much freedom to slander and insult, safe under the protective cap of madness. The subsequent intrigue, full of sexual deviancy and duplicity, arrogant sycophancy and self-promotion, murderous intent, poisonings and revenge develops into a romp of disguise and subterfuge that in the true traditions of its kind, result in a swift and comic dénouement, with love, honesty and virtue winning through in the end.
Dominic Cooke's production captures that xenophobic foreignness and satiric decadence which is at the heart of Marston's play. Cooke admits that he consciously chose to use the earliest version of the play, as written for the boy performers at the Blackfriars playhouse, rather than the longer rewritten play performed by adults at the Globe under the presumed supervision of its principle sharer, Shakespeare.
The reversion to this earlier text involves the noticeable loss of Bilioso's clown Passarello, presumably created for the Globe player Robert Armin, whose presence adds nothing to the action or narrative structure of the play. As Cooke points out, Malevole bears all the attributes of a clown and to duplicate the role appears an unnecessary complication to an already complicated plot. It may have been politic, or commercially expedient, to utilize a 'star turn' at the Globe, but just because the Jacobean equivalent of Ken Dodd existed does not mean he has to be enshrined in a play which was exciting and innovative enough in its first manifestation at the Blackfriars to be accepted and rewritten for a company that had Shakespeare as an active sharer and likely participant in the selection process.
The text of the play has been drastically thinned down, a factor which Cooke accepts as inevitable given his credentials as an associate director at The Royal Court Theatre, London , whose remit is to produce new work as often as possible. As Cooke admits, the mantra of the 'new play' director, 'if it doesn't work, cut it!,' has been openly applied to The Malcontent with sensitivity and vigour, resulting in a fast-moving plot and dialogue that displays a freshness and immediacy often thought of as lacking in Jacobean playwrights.
"The only problem is that Marston often writes soliloquies that are no more than lists" bemoans Cooke as he explains the problems that the new three week rehearsal periods have brought to the RSC actors and directors alike. All the actors had to arrive at the first day of rehearsal "off the book," word-perfect to embark on a play produced within such a tight schedule. Admitting that this focuses the mind, but fearful that the result may involve an over-emphasis on 'blocking' the entrances, exits and positions of the performers onstage, Cooke points to the problem of actors arriving on the first day of rehearsals with their lines and characters ingrained in their memories, having had no chance to develop these characters alongside, and in response to, their colleagues. Such rehearsal rationing may help to satisfy the accountants at the RSC, but the result may be that audiences at the Swan will experience the spectacle of a group of highly skilled actors 'doing their own thing' within a production that lacks a cohesive performance concept, and doing little justice to the Company as a whole.
But what performances. Dressed as if he has stepped out of a production of The Caretaker meets Godot, Antony Sher portrays the malevolent Malevole with the verbal and physical dexterity of a circus clown, dancing around the victims of his viciously honest tongue with apocalyptic Puck-like glee. The physicality of Sher's performance, reminiscent of the homicidal innocence of a Lindsay Kemp creation, is disturbing and captivating at the same time. The revelations of disguise, so shocking to those who have no prior knowledge of the play, capture the schizophrenic danger of an honest if fallible personality trapped within the shell of malevolence and distrust.
By contrast to Sher's playfulness, Joe Dixon as the white-gloved Machiavellian contriver, Mendoza, exudes a controlled sexual deviancy and power which seems ready to explode in orgasmic delight as he winds and plots his way up the ladder of success, eventually seizing ducal power with Hitleresque precision and surface legality. Dixon 's lascivious homily to 'sweet women, most sweet ladies -- nay, angels!,' wallowing in a sea of political incorrectness, is as captivating as his almost immediate volte face when he bitterly rails against those same women as 'Furies!, the 'Damnation of mankind!'. Mendoza 's eventual downfall is only to be expected, but this is not before Dixon 's portrayal has captured the grudging respect and hearts of this twenty-first century audience.
Other notable performances must include Claire Benedict as the bawd, Maquerelle. Arrayed in an extravagant psychedelic dress and sporting an enormous ginger 'Afro', Benedict's snake-like manipulation of those young aristocrat women for whom she acts as sexual adviser and procuress, coupled with her liltingly Caribbean delivery, combine to create a seductive arch-villain who would not look out of place in an Austin Powers movie.
Geoffrey Freshwater, as the sycophantic old marshal, Bilioso, married to the his young and beautiful wife, Bianca, passionately portrayed by Sasha Behar, is a wonderful foil for the verbal abuse of Malevole. Freshwater's delivery oozes with fawning duplicity, ever willing to side with whichever faction is strongest in court, and not averse to pimping his wife in return for his own social advancement.
The usurping Duke Pietro, played by Colin McCormack, truly comes to life as a character when in disguise as the hermit, whereas his wife, Duchess Aurelia played by Amanda Drew, exudes that lustful exuberance which seems to stem from her infection with the incestuous atmosphere of the court. Aurelia's subsequent repentance is handled with subtlety and compassion by Drew, whose aristocratic dignity is restored by the time of the evocative masque towards the end of the play. Performed as a South American 'Dance of Death', the masque highlights the parodic Latino score of Gary Yershon which adds so much to the hot and steamy ambience of the production.
It is late in the play when we are introduced to that epitome of femininity and constancy as defined by patriarchal dominated Jacobean society, Duchess Maria, wife of the usurped Duke Altofronto, played by Anna Madeley. In our politically conscious post feminist world the moral fortitude of Maria could have raised a critical snigger from the audience, but Madeley's composed interpretation gave the character a gravitas and dignity which surmounted contemporary objections, expressing sincere and believable love and dedication for her absent husband.
The Malcontent is in repertory at The Swan with plays by Fletcher, Massinger, Chapman, Jonson, and not forgetting Shakespeare, and it is refreshing to see a production which comes so close to representing the vitality, excitement and creativity of early Jacobean drama whilst reintroducing it to a modern and receptive audience. It is obvious that the RSC has discovered an untapped reservoir of plays with which to supplement their Shakespearean season. Purists may argue against such performances, but the hope is that more of these dramatic delights, lost to the obscurity of time and the mullings of a select few academics, will re-emerge onto the British stage.
Kevin Quarmby © 2002