THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
by John Webster
Royal & Derngate (Royal auditorium) Guildhall Road NN1 1DP To 30 October 2010.
Mon-Sat 7.45pm Mat Thu & Sat 2.30pm.
Audio-described 26 Oct.
BSL Signed 27 Oct.
Post-show Discussion 26 Oct.
Runs 2hr 50min One interval.
TICKETS: 01604 624811.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 22 October.
Modern dress, madrigals – it’s a moving Duchess of Malfi still.
In this tragedy by Jacobean theatre’s Mr Gloom (Webster was aptly portrayed as a rat-stroking boy voyeur in Shakespeare in Love) everything’s bad – fortune (“We are the stars’ tennis balls”), human nature (“Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust”) and the Establishment (“Happy they who never saw the court”). Only existentialist good faith helps us through the struggle (“Integrity of life is fame’s best friend”).
To Webster’s story of secrecy, corruption and torture – incestuous desire was the 20th-century’s additional discovery – director Laurie Sansom has brilliantly added the madrigals of contemporary Carlo Gesualdo, composer of tortuous harmonies. Like Webster’s Ferdinand he was an Italian noble who took murderous revenge in jealous rage over a secret affair – though the object was his wife rather than sister.
A quintet of singers are incorporated in the action. Dark-clothed, they haunt the scene, sitting on the four-poster where the Duchess will conceive her child with her secret husband, the servant Antonio. They serve as aproned doctors in Ferdinand’s maddened sickness. During the final tormenting of the Duchess, they add Gesualdo’s piercing sounds. Then, in the echo valley scene, where Antonio’s warned of his fate, their disembodied voices reduplicate the warning echoes.
Like Hamlet’s Denmark, this Italy is a prison. The dark, blank surfaces of Ruth Sutcliffe’s set, cold as any modern brutalist architecture divide the stage into cells, often covered with grills. Sutcliffe uses the Royal stage’s height to place a balcony, for eavesdropping and overlooking, but also where preparations for childbirth go unobserved by the plotters below.
All this needs matching quality in direction and performance. Sansom’s production certainly provides the first; all the theatrical elements cohere in creating Webster’s cruel world. Individual performances are less secure. David Caves gives the reluctant hatchet-man Bosola a grave, divided consciousness, made apparent in his lucidly explained series of final visits to the Duchess.
And Luke Neal’s Ferdinand shows the Duke’s frustration as he seeks to explain his murderous actions to himself. Too often, though, performances lack precision and fluent speaking of verse. This remains, though, a richly-conceived and executed production of Webster’s tragedy.
Antonio: Nick Blood.
Bosola: David Caves.
Delio: Daniel Crowder.
Cariola/Julia: Claire Dargo.
Duchess: Charlotte Emmerson.
Cardinal: Daniel fredenburgh.
Ferdinand: Luke Neal.
Singrs: Jake Arditti, Michal Czerniawski, Adam Kowalczyk, Edward Lee, Philip Tebb.
Director: Laurie Sansom.
Designer: Ruth Sutcliffe.
Lighting: Philip Gladwell.
Sound: Gareth Fry.
Musical Director: Jonathan Peter Kenny.
Movement: Georgina Lamb.