The Duchess of Malfi - Review

With the advent of Jacobean drama there came a movement in comedy away from the Elizabethan
pre-occupation with romantic love and characterisation towards harsh satire and heightened realism. This was equally so in their tragedies. In these their harshness reflected an obsession with moral corruption and whose plots were violent horror stories, often cynical with an outlook of extreme pessimism. They often took the form of revenge plays. A prime example is to be found in this powerful revival of John Webster's great play.

The widowed Duchess goes against her two brothers' wishes and secretly weds her steward, Antonio, and bears his children. Her brothers – one a duke and the other a cardinal – incensed by this betrayal of noble blood and the slight on their family – seek revenge by employing Bosola, firstly as a spy and then as her murderer. He in turn kills them both when he realises that they mean to do away with him. By the end of the play the stage is littered with slain bodies.

The skilful and sensitive direction given by Nik Hedges to this brooding production, along with many strong performances, provided a gripping evening and lifted any farcical element that such a bloodbath might produce to an acceptable level. Any laughter heard would have been of a nervous nature that sought to relieve the tension created.

In the title role, Rita Stone conveyed fully the complex nature of the Duchess. The lusty passion that lay beneath a sweet and gentle exterior was well contrasted with the touchingly tender scenes with her lover. As Antonio, George Williams settled down after a shaky start and then gave a good interpretation of the role.

Gary Blair was not afraid to give a full-blooded performance as her brother, Ferdinand. The character's descent into wild eyed and gibbering madness was mesmerising. By contrast Tim Blissett's masterly portrayal of Bosola was one of controlled passion. Although cast as the villain of the piece the actor brought an air of dignity and a touch of nobleness to the role. Likewise, Tony Scola's excellent Cardinal was a man that kept his emotions well hidden beneath an icy shell.

These tremendous performances were well matched by the rest of the cast.

It would be wrong not to give credit to the original music provided, on stage, by Eleanor Gamper as it was a major contributing factor to the evening's success. Her music at times had an ethereal quality that enhanced the atmosphere whilst its percussive element heightened and punctuated the action. Being in full view of the audience she was part of the production as in the style of the Japanese Kabuki theatre. At first I had reservations that this would be intrusive to the action and distracting but after a short while it proved not to be the case.

The staging by Nik Hedges had some very inventive moments. I was particularly taken with his use of death head masks as puppets in the masque scene and with the chilling effect he created involving the mad people from the asylum.

The only jarring note was that of some of the men's parts being played by women. It was surprising that this was the case in view of the wealth of talent that the New Venture has.

Barrie Jerram
24th January 2005