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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The 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.

It 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 self-determination.

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 her.

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 dissipates.

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.

Rebecca 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 her.

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.

(The 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.

The 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.

The only 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 doing it.

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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Duchess Of Malfi - Almeida Theatre 2019
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