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 The Theatreguide.London Review

For the archive, we have filed our reviews of two past productions of The Duchess of Malfi on this page.

The Duchess of Malfi
Barbican Theatre 2000

Penned by John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi was first staged in 1614, a typical Jacobean tragedy in that there is a welter of characters, each of whom get at least one stab (forgive the pun) in a labyrinthine soap-opera plot to ham it up in the spotlight before they all meet a gruesome end in a thunderous climax.

Briefly, it's the tale of a duchess who steers her realm into security at a terrible price, namely having to marry her loved one and bear his children in secret all the while fending off the ultimately fatal political and sexual jealousies of her twin brother Ferdinand in cahoots with elder sibling, the Cardinal, and, really, just about everyone else at some point or other.

Anyway, as a play it is a notable one that is worth seeing if only for the strong plot built around one of the more enduring female characters from a pivotal period in English theatre.

Sadly, this is the very area in which this otherwise slick production, from the Royal Shakespeare Company, fails - and in the process very nearly drags down the entire show.

Some years ago I saw Juliet Stevenson do the Duchess in the West End. An extraordinarily busy woman at the time, she still found the energy to take the part by the horns in order to ensure she created a role to be remembered by. Success came her way - and the effect was pure dynamite as Stevenson hit on every level of the character yet never ran away from the play itself or hogged the stage at the expense of her co-players. Most importantly, she had a director she could trust.

At the Barbican, however, you'll find a director who either hasn't a clue or else who cannot be bothered to make the effort, and although newcomer Aisling O'Sullivan makes a brave showing as the Duchess, all focus is lost. Director Gale Edwards lets the cast run around like headless chickens, desperately trying to find some semblance of motive. As a result, the densely structured story starts to fragment and all we are left with is a sequence of undeniably powerful but dramatically inconsequent scenes.

Well, perhaps I'm being a little harsh. If one discards the concept of this being the Duchess's play, then Tom Mannion's Bosola has clearly escaped the miasma and this is his play. Indeed, there are those who would say that it was always intended to be Bosola's play. The man who is brought by Duke Ferdinand as a hatchetman to help keep watch on things finds his own conscience gradually doing a U-turn when he becomes embroiled in the sorry disintegration of the Duchess's precarious world.

I gather that Mannion, an actor of great presence, was brought in only two weeks previous to the opening to replace an actor who had fallen ill. Either way, he combines acid wit with a violent sense of honour to save the play.

Of great help is the set design that is all shadows and chrome, brimming with a post-industrial simplicity that lends a sinister, modern backdrop to the proceedings. Its flexibility is particularly effective when a stacked wall of taunting madmen is created and there is real shock when a wall slides away to reveal the horror of strung-up butchered bodies.

Still, you could always wait until another, better revival pops up.

Nick Awde


The Duchess of Malfi
Lyttelton Theatre Spring 2003

John Webster's 1613 tragedy is generally considered one of the major non-Shakespearean works of the period, but it is better known (and admired) in the classroom than the theatre, which may partly explain why director Phyllida Lloyd has done so very many things wrong in this moribund National Theatre production.

The title character is a young widow who secretly marries her honourable but low-born steward, much to the anger of her two brothers, a corrupt Cardinal and a jealous, possibly incestuous Duke. Using a household spy for most of their dirty work, they set in motion a series of events that end with virtually the entire cast lying dead by the final scene.

In common with many of the period, the play can be static and talky at times, a problem Lloyd not only does not conquer, but one which she exacerbates through clumsy staging. Repeatedly two characters having an intimate conversation stand at opposite ends of the stage, facing the audience and not each other. Whenever there are 3 or 4 people in a scene, they line up in a row and speechify rather than forming any natural grouping.

Offstage actors sit on a set of bleachers that line the rear of the stage, adding to the sense of artificial groupings and non-movement, and the only way Lloyd and her designers could think of to stress the tragic tone seems to have been to play the whole thing in near-darkness..

The play is done in modern dress, with Lloyd falling into every trap that overdone device holds. Characters repeatedly brandish and fire guns while their lines specify swords. Microphones are used for public scenes, intercoms for what should be private conversations, video projections for no reason at all. A key scene, in which the Duchess is tortured by being thrown among raving lunatics, is replaced by a flashy and noisy video montage that is both incomprehensible and ineffective, while another important plot moment involving an accidental killing is so bungled that no one who has not read the play could possibly catch the irony.

The modern dress reduces the Duke to a slimy Mafia boss and the spy to a crude thug, while the all-important differences in class and riches, on which the whole plot hangs, are erased by dressing everyone the same. What should be a tense moment when the brothers almost capture the Duchess's husband is lowered to the level of French farce by having him hide under the bed, and the Duke's eventual descent into madness merely generates titters in the audience.

Amidst all this clumsiness and lifelessness, usually impressive Janet McTeer is able (or allowed) to do very little with the Duchess beyond posing in some elegant gowns. Only near the end, in scenes of despair and near-madness, can she inspire any kind of empathy, entering into Fiona Shaw territory, but with a greater sense of warmth and pain than Shaw would evoke. Lorcan Cranitch finds some complexity in the slimy spy Bosola, hinting at the possibility he might have become a better man in better circumstances, but neither Will Keen's twitchy Duke nor Ray Stevenson's phoned-in Cardinal have any reality.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Duchess of Malfi - RSC Barbican 2000
Review - The Duchess of Malfi - National 2003