THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
by John Webster.
Shakespeare’s Globe 21 New Globe Walk Bankside SE1 9DT To 16 February 2014.
7.30pm Mat Sat, Sun 2.30pm
Runs 2hr 50min One interval.
TICKETS 020 7401 9919/0871 297 0749 (booking fee).
Review: Carole Woddis 16 January.
An unmoving production in a fine setting.
John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1613) seems the hardest play these days to get right. A dance of death that breathes out decay and moral contagion at every pore, you’d think the Globe’s beautiful and intimate new Sam Wanamaker indoor playhouse, emulating the first Jacobean theatres and lit only by candles, would be perfect for bringing the play’s dark intimacies, betrayals, and violence into chilling focus.
Such craftsmanship has clearly gone into the timbered building with its wooden pillars, octagonal shaped three-tiered thrust stage auditorium and shuttered artificial light. But the same degree of skill and intensity is sadly, not present on the stage.
Malfi has often drawn stellar actresses to the role: Peggy Ashcroft, Helen Mirren, Juliet Stevenson and Eve Best amongst them. The play has the capacity to stir and move millstones, one of the best in this vein being with Stevenson’in Philip Franks’ mid-1990s Greenwich production.
Dominic Dromgoole with the rising if not risen Gemma Arterton (Hilde Wangel in the Almeida’s The Master Builder, Tess in the BBC’s < i>Tess of the D’Urbervilles) as the Duchess seems to have settled on something far less ambitious, a horror-lite portrait of dysfunctional siblings heavily informed by post-modernist irony.
This sits well with a character like Bosola, the soldier loyalist employed as spy by the Aragon dukes Ferdinand and his brother the Cardinal, whose mercenary inclinations reflect his amorality but also a rich sense of nihilism. All is one, in the end, he realises, as Fate and accident take charge.
If Bosola is the nearest thing to the play’s moral centre, Arteton’s Duchess starts off regal and remains gaily headstrong in the face of repression, exile, mental torture and finally murder – if not exactly virtue personified a fair facsimile of a doomed aristocrat Webster might well have recalled, one Anne Boleyn.
Too often, though, this Malfi underwhelms by its resistance to savouring the text. Feeding on popular sentiment, what should be a bitter and tragic indictment of power and its perversions (Ferdinand is a ripe case of incestuous psychosis) is rendered coolly self-knowing. Disappointing.
Duchess of Malfi: Gemma Arterton.
Silvio: Giles Cooper.
Ferdinand: David Dawson.
Castruccio/Doctor: John Dougall.
Cardinal: James Garnon.
Bosola: Sean Gilder.
Julia: Denise Gough.
Cariola: Sarah MacRae.
Pescara/Roderigo: Brendan O’Hea.
Delio: Paul Rider.
Malateste/Grisolan: Dickon Tyrrell.
Antonio: Alex Waldmann.
Child: Archie Bradfield/George Morris.
Bass Viol: Emilia Benjamin
Violin/Recorders: Sharon LIndo
Theobo/Lute/Cittern: Benjamin Narvey
Director: Dominic Dromgoole.
Designer: Jonathan Fensom.
Composer/Globe Associate for Early Modern Music: Claire van Kampen.
Musical Director: Tom Foster.
Choreographer: Siân Williams.
Globe Associate – Text: Giles Block.
Globe Associate – Movement: Glynn MacDonald.
Voice/Dialect: Martin McKellan.
Fight director: Kevin McCurdy.
Assistant director: Tatty Hennessy.
First performance of this production of The Duchess of Malfi in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare Globe, Southwark, London, 9 January 2014.