One might be forgiven for thinking that nobody could outdo John Webster when it comes to sickening violence, particularly in the case of The Duchess of Malfi, where the body count is higher than Donald Trumps’ spray tan bill.
However, he has been bested by Euphonia Theatre company, for the true brutality here is in their ruthless cutting of the play. At 90 minutes, exactly half the length of the original, it lies hacked and bloody; still recognisable, but something of a shadow of its former self.
The titular Duchess, lately widowed, harbours an illicit passion for her Steward, Antonio. Not being overly bothered about the class divide, she manages to convince him, despite his reservations, to wed her in secret. The children which follow are hard to conceal, and the suspicions of her corrupt and unstable brother, Ferdinand, are aroused. Finding that she has disobeyed his strict injunction not to remarry, and thereby jeopardised his ambitions towards her fortune and status, he sets out to exact a terrible revenge.
Despite the fact that this version of the play is a four-hander, necessitating the removal of several characters, the narrative and the action flow smoothly. Scenes segue seamlessly and logically, and love, betrayal and murder do their inevitable, twisted dance. The set is simple, consisting almost solely of a chair and a table, and the one door is used to great effect. The dress is modern yet appropriate and doesn’t jar with the flowery Jacobean language, which the cast master very well.
The acting, from all four, is generally very good. Stephanie Schmalzle is a self-possessed and likeable Duchess; Jordan Bernarde’s Antonio is amiable and noble; James Rose is increasingly conflicted as Bosola the spy and Ollie Dickens, after a slightly subdued and inaudible start, eventually gives a barnstorming performance as demented Ferdinand.
Director Alisdair Kitchen has a flair for the naturalistic and understated, which contrasts well with the later violent excesses. That said, despite all of their efforts, there is something missing. The play feels heartless, and it is difficult to empathise with anyone, even the poor Duchess in her paroxysms of grief. A moment which should have been truly gut-wrenchingly horrifying felt merely unpleasant. It is difficult to say exactly why this should be so. Maybe it was the lack of atmospheric lighting; while it is all very well to pare down script, set and costumes, a production of this level of horror should have some decently gloomy lighting effects to underline the menace.
It could also be that the swingeing cuts had something to do with it; it is difficult for an actor to build the emotional intensity when they have to rush through their lines and on to the next scene. Perhaps Euphonia would consider putting half an hour of material back in, and having an interval?
Nevertheless, this production of The Duchess of Malfi is lively, gripping and enjoyable, and would also serve as an excellent introduction to Webster for students.
Review by Genni Trickett
he young, widowed Duchess of Malfi yearns to marry her secret lover, Antonio. But her malevolent and obsessive brother, Prince Ferdinand is implacably opposed to the match. When his spy, Bosola, discovers that the Duchess has clandestinely married and has borne Antonio’s child, he exacts monstrous revenge…
The Duchess of Malfi
Thursday 28 September 2017 – Sunday 01 October 2017