The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
(2006)

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There is something horribly claustrophobic about Webster's masterpiece. The Duchess and her depraved brothers play out their tragedies in the hothouse atmosphere of a corrupt court, many scenes take place in semi-darkness and most of the characters spy on or are spied upon by others. The best productions of the play I can remember were staged in studio theatres, so it comes as something of a surprise to find that Philip Franks' stylish new Duchess of Malfi works equally well in the wide open spaces of the Quarry Theatre.

Franks has chosen to set the play in the early 1950s. We first meet the beautiful young Duchess (Imogen Stubbs), recently widowed and looking gorgeous in black, posing for press photographers with her two brothers - the licentious Cardinal (Guy Williams) and flamboyant military man Ferdinand (Timothy Walker, looking uncannily like a slimmed-down Hermann Göring). Both of them are determined that their sister should not marry again, the Cardinal because he is loathe to part with her dowry and Ferdinand because of his barely disguised incestuous passion for her. But unknown to them the Duchess has already set her heart on a second husband, one far beneath her in the social scale - her steward Antonio (James Albrecht). And thereby hangs a tale of murder, madness, apricots and lycanthropy.

Although it has to be said that the updating doesn't really provide any new insights into the play, the whole thing is performed with such panache that a few anachronisms barely register. The Cardinal's dalliance with his mistress Julia (Melanie Jessop), who arrives at his office with nothing but a glamorous New Look coat standing between her and arrest for indecent exposure, is perfectly credible. Ferdinand is exactly the kind of repressed pervert who would torment his sister with a clip of film, projected onto a sheet in her basement prison, apparently showing Antonio dead in a mortuary (and let's not forget the incident with the severed hand).

The entire cast throw themselves into their roles with the whole-hearted conviction without which the play can easily become a grand guignol farce. "Kittenish" is not a word one thinks of in relation to Webster's heroine, but Imogen Stubbs plays her as a loving and loveable young woman determined to snatch all the happiness she can from a hard and unforgiving world. Her lack of the customary grande dame manner, at least in private, makes her imperious "I am Duchess of Malfi still" - spoken shortly before her murder - all the more moving. Williams and Walker give riveting performances as the villainous brothers and James Albrecht succeeds in making the rather thankless role of Antonio genuinely touching.

This Duchess of Malfi is one of the most handsome productions I've seen for some time. Leslie Travers' simple but elegant set, mostly in tones of grey, features sliding panels that transform the stage into various rooms at the palace, a railway station and the sinister basement in which the Duchess and her two youngest children are killed. A marble floor becomes a rainswept pavement, a twisted tree grows in the palace garden and Charles Balfour's beautiful lighting gives the play an authentic film noir look. And needless to say, lovers of 1950s haute couture will be in raptures from beginning to end.

Finally, although opinion will probably be divided over Stubbs' interpretation of the title role - and there were times when her rapid, naturalistic delivery of Webster's lines was hard to follow - this Duchess of Malfi is a clever and highly entertaining take on a great play. A New Look, in fact.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 11th November

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson