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The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster at The Almeida Theatre

Lydia Wilson in The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
Lydia Wilson in The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida Theatre, London. Photo: Marc Brenner

The glass partitions and contemporary dress were amongst the memorable elements of the Almeida Theatre’s 2017 production of Hamlet, and they’re back for this production of John Webster’s 1613 play The Duchess of Malfi. The whole thing is set (as far as the naked eye is concerned) in an unspecified location – which is fine, as one then relies on the dialogue to work out where each scene is set, as one is likely to have done back in the seventeenth century. The costumes seem inconsequential – The Cardinal (Michael Marcus) isn’t distinguishable by ecclesiastical garments of any kind, for instance. More effort would have been put in by a man invited to a ‘tarts and vicars’
party. Equally, the title character (Lydia Wilson) is, in this production, devoid of the religious devotion and duty that Webster gave the character (and indeed the play).

Most irritating of all is the near-constant background noise, which continues to permeate practically everything, as though Webster’s text and the cast’s delivery of it couldn’t be relied upon in themselves to sufficiently bring the play to life. This goes far and beyond the usual swelling of music to indicate a key dramatic moment – it is low-level but persistent, and largely unnecessary, proving so distracting after a while that I found it rather difficult to concentrate on proceedings. Quite frankly there might as well have been mobile telephones ringing constantly: I really found it that annoying.

On both far stage left and far stage right sit a glass cabinet with miscellaneous props used throughout the performance. There’s more glass in the form of a large rectangular box structure, representing various things as the play went on, which a) would be giving too much away if listed here and b) somewhat open to interpretation. But the production makes good use out of their proverbial goldfish bowl, and it slowly slides forwards and backwards as the action demands. Oh, and nobody wears shoes in Malfi.

The treatment of the Duchess resonates well enough in the twenty-first century, which is something of an indictment on supposedly more enlightened times, given that the play is classed as a tragedy for a reason. A feature length article in the show’s programme that asserts the play is feminist – I’m not entirely convinced. Consider, for example, a late scene in which three women stand at the rear of the stage, silent, while the men carry on with their dialogue, at length. But I take the point that the Duchess prefers to be in control of her own affairs rather than be ruled by her brothers, Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) and The Cardinal. Even when she is ‘imprisoned’ (what would probably be ‘under house arrest’ in this day and age), she adamantly asserts: “I am Duchess of Malfi still.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there is, strictly speaking, no fake blood on stage. That doesn’t, to be fair, make Act IV Scene II any less harrowing or violent. When, in Act V Scene II, Ferdinand apparently believes himself to be a wolf, it’s all a bit of a scream-fest to the point that there were at least a couple of lines I missed completely. I’ve made this point before, and I shall repeat it here – slow-motion scenes in theatre should usually only be done for comedic purposes: the serious use of it in the dying (as it were) moments of this production is jarring, making what could have been a poignant moment too melodramatic.

The production came across to me as too tame and not dark and foreboding enough given the topics and themes the play deals with. It’s a good cast with no weak links to report, and despite my reservations there will be much for those who have a penchant for Jacobean revenge tragedies to discuss on the train home.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

When the Duchess falls in love with her steward Antonio, her corrupt brothers embark on a chilling plot to destroy her marriage, power and agency. What begins as a jealous plan to extinguish her love becomes a bloodthirsty quest to extinguish her life.

CAST & CREATIVES
Direction Rebecca Frecknall
Design Chloe Lamford
Costume Nicky Gillibrand
Light Jack Knowles
Sound George Dennis
Casting Julia Horan CDG
Resident Director Sammy Glover
Fight Director Jonathan Holby
Resident Designer (Sound) Fizz Margereson
Resident Designer (Set) Amy Hayden-Wason
Resident Designer (Costume) Finlay Forbes Gower

Cast
Khalid Abdalla
Hadassah Allen
Leo Bill
Jersey Blu Georgia
Ioanna Kimbook
Michael Marcus
Ciarán Owens
Shalini Peiris
Jack Riddiford
Jethro Skinner
Kalungi Ssebandeke
Lydia Wilson

Almeida Theatre
https://almeida.co.uk/

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