Monday, 6 January 2020

Theatre review: The Duchess of Malfi

Rebecca Frecknall has inherited Robert Icke's Associate Director position at the Almeida and with it, it would seem, the van Hove-style captions and a set dominated by a glass-panelled room. Why this one, designed by Chloe Lamford, appears to be a gym changing room I'm not sure, but if the visuals are a bit more elaborate than in her last couple of shows here, Frecknall's style continues to pare scenes down to a breathtaking minimum. The Duchess of Malfi is John Webster's tale of a woman afflicted with two sexy-but-evil brothers, and Lydia Wilson gives a steely performance as the Duchess who's widowed very young, and claims she has no intention of marrying again. It's a lie she tells because she's in love with her steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla,) and the gulf between their stations means her older brother the Cardinal (Michael Marcus) would rather see her dead than marrying beneath her and disgracing the family.

The marriage would also anger her twin brother Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford,) but his reasons are a lot less clinical, and more about his own mental health problems and an obsessive desire to control his sister (although Frecknall’s production downplays the incestuous implications of their relationship.)

The Duchess and Antonio somehow manage to keep their marriage secret for a few years despite having a child, but when she goes into labour prematurely with twins there’s no hiding it any more, and Antonio is sent away to safety with their oldest child. But if the Duchess believes her husband is the only one her brothers would target, she’s soon disabused of the notion as bodies start to pile up. I’ve seen a few Duchesses by now and Frecknall’s stands out in a few ways, not least of all its clarity in the middle of Webster’s signature overwrought plot. Wilson brings a stillness and dignity to the role that spreads out to the entire play, and there’s an emphasis on telling the story through the language – there’s few visual flourishes or gimmicks but it never becomes dull.

Also making more sense than I’ve seen before is the ambiguous figure of the Cardinal’s spy and assassin Bosola (Leo Bill,) a disillusioned mercenary who’s disgusted with the fact that he makes his living by doing the dirty work nobody else is willing to – but not actually disgusted enough to stop taking the paycheques. I was also put in mind a lot of T.S. Eliot’s famous line about how Webster “saw the skull beneath the skin” – the obsession with people carrying their own corruption and decay inside them seeps out of every line.

Webster’s brand of grand guignol borders on (if not crashing right over the border with) the absurd, and productions tend to embrace a tongue-in-cheek approach to make sure any laughs are with the story, not at it. Frecknall plays the horror absolutely straight, and while I can’t say I didn’t miss the element of camp I’m used to, it’s impressive how much the tone hits all the tragic notes it wants to, with barely an audience giggle. This does in part come from toning down or dispensing entirely with some of the sillier elements: The fact that Bosola has a massive moral event horizon where he decides not to murder Antonio, only to immediately kill him by accident, is downplayed. And gone completely is my favourite moment of whatthefuckery, the infamous Death by Bible, as the Cardinal administers the poison to his mistress Julia (Shalini Peiris) in her drink instead. It’s part of a general theme of stripping the religious trappings from the character – if it wasn’t for the fact that he has no other name than “The Cardinal” you wouldn’t know, and while the fact that it leaves him straightforwardly as a cold, manipulative politician makes him more contemporary, the loss of the robes does also leave him without one major layer of hypocrisy and corruption.

Not that there aren’t some interesting character choices as well, notably Riddiford’s clingy, brattish, faux-Byronic Ferdinand; I found it ironic that his character’s dress sense in the first half is very much “sexy vampire,” given he’ll spend the second convinced he’s a werewolf (another surreal plot point that’s presented admirably straight.) Ultimately Frecknall brings to the fore the way the play shows women becoming the victims of men’s petty obsessions, as the murdered Duchess, Julia and Cariola (Ioanna Kimbook) watch the men finally turn on each other after wiping them all out (the production also makes up for the title character’s unusually early exit by doubling Wilson as Ferdinand’s doctor, meaning he can be haunted by visions of his sister.) This might not be a perfect Duchess of Malfi - personally I like a production to embrace the downright weirdness a bit more – but it’s an excellent one, and surely the closest I’ve seen to recreating the air of horror Webster must have intended.

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is booking until the 25th of January at the Almeida Theatre (returns and rush tickets only.)

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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