Thursday 23 January 2014

Theatre review: The Duchess of Malfi

Shakespeare's Globe serves up a feast for the eyes and a torture for the back and buttocks as it finally unveils the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The much smaller indoor companion to their summer theatre launches its first season with the best-known tragedy by Jacobean nutter John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi. The titular Duchess (Gemma Arterton) is a young widow, who secretly marries her steward Antonio (Alex Waldmann) and has three children with him without almost anybody noticing. The Duchess has a pair of psychotic brothers, her jealous twin Ferdinand (David Dawson,) who is inappropriately possessive of his sister's virtue, and the oily, hypocritical Cardinal (James Garnon.) When their spy Bosola (Sean Gilder) brings them news of their sister's secret life, they plot a cruel, brutal and, this being Webster, generally batshit fucking insane punishment.

The Swanamaker's intimacy gives it a bit of a different feel to its sister venue, its stage looking very much like a miniature version of the Globe's but without the pillars in the way (it's got walls and a ceiling to do their job.) So Dominic Dromgoole's production takes lessons from years of practice and applies them to a space where the audience feels even more in the middle of the action.

The venue is almost entirely candlelit, which seems restrictive but actually appears to have given Dromgoole a chance to experiment with lighting in a way the outdoor venue, whose light remains the same throughout to simulate daytime performances, doesn't permit: Candlelight sounds like it'll be atmospheric anyway, but by choosing how many candelabra to have lit or how high to suspend them from the ceiling, the lighting level can vary over the course of the evening depending on the scene. There is also a slight cheat at play - opening panels in the back walls allows the electric light from the front of house area to add illumination to brighter moments.

Arterton is a bright and vibrant Duchess who has a great chemistry with Waldmann, which means we buy their playful and genuine relationship, making it the heart of the piece. Of course you can have the best Duchess in the world, she still dies (twice) forty minutes before the end, which is where the danger is of everything coming unstuck. If you play Webster too straight it's likely the audience will end up laughing at it anyway, and Dromgoole knows just how to pitch the insanity of the play's latter half, which includes waxworks, dancing lunatics, and death by Bible.

Of course with James Garnon in the cast there was never much fear of taking things too seriously, and his Cardinal's confused reaction to discovering he has a conscience of sorts is gold; his sleek malevolence counterbalances Dawson's (literally) dribbling insanity. Denise Gough provides some fun moments as her Julia falls instantly in love with Bosola because the plot would take forever to resolve itself if she didn't, and there's quieter, dignified support from Sarah MacRae as the faithful Cariola. As usual I can't help looking ahead and wondering how well Dromgoole and co will manage to find new ways of making each production in the space fresh, but for now the novelty of the venue is far from the only reason this is a great start to its season. It's just a shame that, thanks to a bit too earnest an attempt at authenticity in the seating design, it's such an uncomfortable show to watch.

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is booking until the 16th of February at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

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