THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
by John Webster.
White Bear Theatre 138 Kennington Park Road SE11 4DJ To 30 September 2012.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm Sun 6pm.
Runs 1hr 40min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7793 9193.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 22 September.
Insidious cruelty in modern clothes.
Seated neatly and silently, heads down as if in contemplation or prayer, six figures sit on the White Bear’s stage. Then a waiter walks slowly and respectfully through them with a tray of drinks.
By when a process of disruption is beginning, which will end in confusion and chaos. The figures raise their heads, an aggressive mix of leer and flirtation in their grotesque laughter. The neat rows are broken, furniture’s overturned and fury erupts, the few quiet moments between the Duchess and Antonio, the servant she marries to her two powerful brothers’ rage, threatened by secrecy and treachery.
Sometimes it’s too restrained, though that’s in keeping with the intimate performing conditions. Owen Horsley’s production probably works best for someone with a knowledge of John Webster’s Jacobean Tragedy; yet the elisions in this cut version can help make matters clear in a play that’s often suffered from directors’ and designers’ operatic aggrandisement.
So the Cardinal’s quiet statement that he’ll have the authorities in Ancona, where their sister’s sought refuge, expel her and Antonio is immediately followed by their surprised “Banished Ancona?” The web of power and its impact on the less powerful is keenly apparent.
The abstract setting helps here, as it does when Duke Ferdinand comes from the shadows behind his sister, who thinks she’s safely talking to her husband. The reduced cast-size and the non-located action give a swift, cinematic fluidity as information’s passed – Bosola, the trusted spy, has only to hear a secret and we sense the whole stage-world knows.
The torturing and death of the Duchess takes place in the blue light of a torture chamber, the Duke issuing instructions by microphone, clearly watching through a screen – intriguingly this modern addition is the nearest to a specific location. The attempt to destroy the Duchess is muted; she alone, in Kelly Hotten’s dignified, controlled portrayal, remains herself amidst suffering. There’s plenty of screaming and violence when the other women are murdered.
The contained style, modern dress and minimalist setting bespeak Horsley’s work with Cheek by Jowl but this is clearly a thought-through revival with its own strengths.
Duchess: Kelly Hotten.
Cariola/Julia: Charlotte Powell.
Ferdinand: Orlando James.
Cardinal: George Taylor.
Bosola: Philip Cairns.
Antonio: Edmund Wiseman.
Delio: Vincent Enderby.
Director: Owen Horsley.
Designer: Simon Anthony Wells.
Lighting: Daniel Street.
Sound: Helen Atkinson.