Writer: John Webster
Director: Natalie York
Set Designer: Jenny Gamble
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The Duchess of Malfi, Webster’s great tragedy, is a grand tale of corruption, betrayal and violent death. Brothers Ferdinand and The Cardinal do not wish their sister, the titular and widowed Duchess to remarry so they can retain control over her estate and her person. Although promising not to do so, the Duchess marries her steward Antonio, a man far beneath her in rank, and conceals this and the ensuing pregnancy from the world. Using the spy Bosola, the brothers uncover their sister’s betrayal and plot her death. Under a spurious pretext she sends Antonio away in order to save his life. The Duchess is imprisoned and as danger surrounds her, the ensuing events destroy the royal family.
The New Diorama production starts well with a curious and powerful opening scene. The Duchess appears in her underwear surrounded by masked men, who to a scratchy opera soundtrack slowly dress her for court. It’s simultaneously sinister and a useful reminder of how the Duchess’s sexuality will play a rôle in her downfall. It is a great device which sets your expectations for a dark and powerful retelling of this story, which unfortunately isn’t carried through the remainder of the production.
Part of the problem is the design which seems to range over a number of different eras. The costumes are quite varied, with nods to the 18th-century alongside the 1930s and modern shiny suits, jeans and big overcoats. The back wall is dominated by an abstract tunnel design with could be from the 1960s, while the rather odd music between scenes had a 1980s flavour. Setting plays in another era is fine, but it has to be consistent or it just becomes a distraction. While distancing the audience from the language, it also meant it was unclear which class some of the more minor characters belonged to which is a significant theme in the play.
The people in plain white masks also appear quite frequently, although it’s not clear what the director intends this to mean. Masks are mentioned several times in the play and characters temporarily conceal truths about themselves, but having faceless people changing the scenes or representing the ‘mad’ surrounding the Duchess’s cell just isn’t an obvious connection, because the orchestrators of her downfall are not concealed either to the audience or the Duchess.
The acting too is quite varied. By far Tom Blyth as Ferdinand and Stephen MacNiece’s Bosola stood out. Blyth’s creepy and incestuous Ferdinand has a nervousness and supressed rage which makes him compelling to watch, while MacNiece gave a complex performance as Bosola leaving the audience unsure whether to be reviled by this hired assassin or sympathise with his eventual humanity. Callum Cameron also does fairly well with the emasculated and rather wet rôle of Antonio, a man who is entirely controlled by the Duchess.
Lucy Laing’s Duchess, however, lacked subtly and is at times either too much or off pitch. The proposal scene with Antonio is played for laughs, which is at odds with the coyness of the language as the Duchess beguiles Antonio into marriage. The final scenes are very hysterical when it seemed she should be resigned and almost courageously prepared for her fate. Sadly the central rôle just lacks charisma and gives no insight into whether the Duchess is a powerful controller or mere victim of fate.
The piece does meander a bit, especially towards the end, and the tension doesn’t build as perhaps it should. The overriding impression here is that the cast and crew had a lot of different ideas about this play and tried to incorporate them all into this production. The result is patchy and though there are some good performances and dramatic scenes, it doesn’t feel entirely unified.
Runs Until: 23 August