The Duchess of Malfi

Tue 25th February – Sat 1st March 2014

reviews

Hannah Greenstreet

at 00:31 on 26th Feb 2014

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Revenge tragedy is associated with the grotesque, the excessive and the bizarre. The clean, stark aesthetic of Isabelle Kettle’s production, which sets The Duchess of Malfi in Italy in 1933, confounds these expectations, reviving the play’s eviscerating power.

This is a visually amazing production. The stage is dominated by a screen, upon which films of the characters giving political speeches are projected. The end of the first act is particularly heart wrenching, when the Duchess of Malfi’s patriotic speech is counterpointed by the tableux of her terrified family, fleeing for their lives, to the strains of nationalist music. The screen is also used at points to seal off the Duchess’s bedroom from the rest of the stage, endorsing the Duchess and Antonio’s allusion that their world can be the world. The aesthetic of the second act is far more brutal, the opulent domestic trappings of the first act gone to leave a sculpture of a screaming human face. The precision and poise of the visual elements are reflected in all other aspects of the production.

Charlotte Quinney pitches her performance as the Duchess of Malfi perfectly. At the beginning of the play she is vivacious and flirtatious, dancing with the soldiers, challenging her brothers and wooing Antonio. She rises to tragic stature in her final scenes, defiantly declaring ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’. Each of her costume changes, from blue ball gown to red dress to white shift, seems to bring out a new, more complex aspect of her character. Mark Milligan was a fantastically sinister Cardinal, spiky and brooding in his scarlet vestments. He managed to inflect his question to Bosola, ‘Wherefore comst thou hither’, with a chilling degree of malice. Henry Jenkinson blossomed as Antonio, playing him as a tender, domestic man, forced to conceal his love. The two boys who played the Duchess and Antonio’s children also deserve mention; the strong emphasis the production placed upon the family brought home the brutality of Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s regime.

Kettle’s direction generally negotiated difficult moments of the play well. James Bloor as Ferdinand eating profiteroles straight from the bowl as he watches some atrocities he has ordered is a particularly bizarre highlight. Paul Adeyfa as Bosola also cracks some jokes at 17th century assumptions: that the Duchess’s voracious appetite for apricots proves that she is definitely pregnant. It would have been good to see more moments at Webster’s expense. At times the speed and volume of the actors’ made the play difficult to follow, potentially alienating people who had not read the play before. Perhaps more could also have been cut from the script, especially from the opening of the first half.

Isabelle Kettle’s production of The Duchess of Malfi is a coherent, aesthetic whole, sustained by a fantastic cast. In focusing on the Duchess and Antonio's relationship it grabs the play by its bloody, throbbing heart.

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Christy Edwall

at 09:32 on 26th Feb 2014

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Despite the revivals that have been accumulating lately – the 2012 Old Vic production, the showpiece of the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Theatre earlier this year – 'The Duchess of Malfi' is a play still lacking the wide circulation of Shakespeare. One should see it just for the pleasure of hearing the lines performed: striking lines like ‘The death/ of young wolves is never to be pitied’. Or, ‘I know death hath ten thousand several doors/ For men to take their exits; and ‘tis found/ They go on such strange geometrical hinges,/ You may open them both ways’.

And yet the strength of Webster’s play, its savage writing and its integral tragedy, was drowned out in last night's performance from the time the curtain rose by sporadic bursts of music which overpowered the actors’ voices and prevented much of the opening scene from being audible. The music, supposedly on the wireless, seems to be meant to give a jaunty background to the weighty material at hand, a contrast which exposes the hollowness of hope in the tragic genre. But preventing the audience from hearing the opening lines – as the characters are named and their relations sketched out – is fatal. This reliance on music to give heft to the play displays a regrettable insecurity about the play’s ability to create its own mood.

The design team also buttressed the production by adding multimedia: projecting videos of characters giving monologues against a back screen in a gesture both to their public roles as princes and rulers within the sphere of the play and to the setting in the propagandistic Italy of Mussolini. It’s an ambitious trick, but in practice becomes difficult to pull off without a hitch. The director and producers would have done far better to rely on their chief strength: their actors. Candlelight – the historic prop of choice – was the setting that suited the grim action best.

Once left to their own devices the ensemble acted well, especially in the second half of the performance. Charlotte Quinney is an admirable Duchess. While her proclamation ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’ is spoken in a rush of rage rather than quiet conviction, she is a moving protagonist. The scenes with Antonio (Henry Jenkinson) are easy and affectionate, and take a good stab at creating the domesticity that is later destroyed. James Bloor is an open-mouthed, greasy-haired, rabid Ferdinand. Once he picks up momentum, he extends himself into Ferdinand’s menacing, though his earliest fit of anger disfigured his speech so that he was unintelligible. Bloor and Quinney’s duet in the dark is seamless, although one wishes that a little more light would be allowed to show the audience the horror of what the Duchess will see before she does.

Bosola (Paul Adeyefa), the silver-tongued lackey of the Duchess’ murderous brothers, sparkles in his monologues. He seems to be in the middle of a dramatic transition – working out a theory of acting on the stage – so that if he runs into difficulties, it seems to be done in service of a later good. His Bosola borrows elements of Mercutio and Puck, and is run through with a nervous energy stretched tight. Emily Dance's Julia is an intelligent seductress, coaxing lust leisurely from her fellow actors. There was more real sensuality here than between Quinney and Jenkinson for all their fond romance.

One hopes that the technical crew will smooth over the lighting difficulties and mute the music in future performances in order to give more precedence to the actors. All they need are the luxuries of time and silence to speak.

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