The Theatreguide.London Review
Duchess Of Malfi
Almeida Theatre Winter 2019-2020
John Webster's 1614
drama is one of those Shakespearean-era plays better known to
postgraduate students in literature than the theatregoing public.
has a strong female character with a strikingly modern sensibility,
but it poses problems to a director and actors that this production,
despite some virtues, doesn't quite conquer.
The plot is simple. The
title character marries a commoner, much to the outrage of her two
brothers, a Duke and a Cardinal, who set out to torture and destroy
her. That achieved, they and just about everyone else in the play
turn against each other, leaving the final stage tableau as covered
in dead bodies as Hamlet.
The major attraction of
the play is the
character of the Duchess, a woman who knows what she wants, goes out
and gets it, and then forcefully defends her right to
Lydia Wilson and
director Rebecca Frecknall have
chosen not to invest her with too much plaster-saint majesty, but
rather to open with a charming and believable image of a young woman
in love, and let the character only discover her strength as she
discovers that she can withstand the suffering her brothers impose on
This more dynamic and
human characterisation is one of the
production's strengths, but it means that when – spoiler alert –
the Duchess dies, an enormous amount of the play's focus and energy
A structural problem the
play presents to modern
sensibilities is that the Duchess's death comes about two-thirds of
the way through, and the play has to linger on for almost an hour
without her. (Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences evidently had a
different sense of anticlimax from ours – c.f. the last act of The
Merchant Of Venice.)
Some directors face this problem by heavy cutting that races through the last act, contributing to Webster's unfair reputation as just one baroque murder after another.
Frecknall just plods through it, trying to keep the image of the
Duchess alive by keeping Lydia Wilson onstage, doubling in a couple
of minor roles. But it is the character, and not the actress, that is
missed, and we simply can't care as much for the others as we did for
Director Frecknall and
costume designer Nicky Gillibrand
compound this problem with a plain business-suit modern dress design
that makes all the men look pretty much alike. Even if you don't
actually have trouble remembering who's who, you are given very
little assistance in developing any attitude toward them.
Cardinal, for example, is a total hypocrite with a mistress, but when
the actor doesn't wear anything clerical, not even a cross, some of
the irony is lost.)
The audience is further
distanced from the
characters by a stage design by Chloe Lamford that puts much of the
action behind a glass wall, with voices necessarily amplified.
all-but-disembodied voices become separated from the people we see,
giving the effect of a radio play being mimed to. One key scene is
played in total darkness with amplified voices and, while I assume
it's spoken live I could not swear it wasn't prerecorded.
character other than the Duchess that invites some identification and
sympathy is the assistant-baddie Bosola, who does the brothers' dirty
work for them.
Building on indications
in the text that he was an
essentially good man embittered by official neglect and abuse, Leo
Bill finds all the opportunities to show us the man wrestling with a
moral sense that doesn't like what he's doing but can't stop him from
If anything carries the staggering last hour of the play, it is his character and performance. But this Duchess Of Malfi remains heavy going, with only the glimpses of humanity in the two leading performances to keep it going.
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