Review: The Duchess of Malfi

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John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is one of the most iconic plays of the Jacobean eraand Director Rahul Shah has fashioned a most innovative and spellbinding rendition of this chilling classicThe raw emotion of the acting, the intimacy between the actors and the audience and the atmospheric soundtrack and staging make for an immersive experience. In one word, it is unmissable. Phoenix Theatre can give themselves a hearty pat on the back.

An immersive experience

The Duchess of Malfi is a multi-faceted play, but its core centres on the anguish of a Duchess who enters a marriage against her malevolent brothers’ wishes. Charged with eroticism and intensified by the swelling insanity of Ferdinand, the Duchess’s brother, the play explores troubling issues. To what extent might patriarchal figures go to retain their authority? To what extent should love be valued over personal security?

The most mesmerising performance is that of Ben Willows, who plays Ferdinand. The physicality of his acting is astonishing, every gesture and movement having emotional relevance, every shout thunderous with rage. From the moment he first appeared on stage, Willows exuded the class and clout needed to play such a character. The clownish Castruchio – a character excellently played by Tom Duckworth who provides comedic relief in an otherwise macabre play – trembles when speaking to Ferdinand, and the audience almost trembles with him. 

In her role as the Duchess, is marvellous. Upon entering the theatre, you will find her lounging in an armchair close to the front row, nonchalant and serene – an appropriate introduction to the resolute character that she is. Laird expertly captures the Duchess’ spectrum of emotions and behaviours; moving from coquettish to inspired to anxious to grief-stricken. 

Where this play really makes an impression is not just in the proficiency of its actors, but in its inventive adaptation of the play. Bosola, the man tasked with investigating the Duchess’ private secrets, is invested with god-like power; he has the capability to control the lighting and to halt the play for his own interaction with the audience. By consequence, he acts as a guide, offering his internal thoughts to onlookers through soliloquies, and portrays Bosola’s grapple with his conscience very believably. 

Beautiful, moving spectacle

Moreover, Director Shah makes the bold move of adapting the final act of the play into a dumb show, with the final scenes of the play being played out in short, silent snapshots, soundtracked by mournful singing from Olivia Spillane. This move pays off. The ending of the play is tighter and pacier than in the original script, the defining moments of the final act entombed before the eyes in a highlights reel of eerie images. It is a beautiful, moving spectacle. 

However, the condensing of the play leads to the loss of a scene which is usually popular with audiences: the pageant of lunatics in Act Four, Scene Two. The absurdity of this scene often makes it the most hilarious part of the play, and one wonders whether its replacement with a mere background audio of overlapping voices is a missed opportunity. Additionally, the merging of several characters into one actor, Oscar Nicholson, limits the scope of personalities in the play and diminishes the buzz around the court, but nevertheless Nicholson handles the multitude of characters with variety and self-assurance. Any criticisms I have are minimal and unnoticeable to a first-time viewer of the play. Also, the condensing of the play feels part of a conscious effort by Shah and his assistant to haul the play away from ridiculousness in order to emphasise the underlying menace in the work, which is admirable.

I recommend this version of The Duchess of Malfi wholeheartedly. Every actor and actress are worthy of a tribute. All of the lighting techniques, costumes and makeup help to embroil you in a world sizzling with scandal, lechery and contempt. Get yourselves down to the Mark Hillery Arts Centre at Collingwood College and watch this play!

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