The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
Apricot Theatre Company (touring) at Stagecoach Studio Theatre, York
(2004)

Scene from The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is arguably the greatest non-Shakespearian tragedy of its era. A magnificent title role, a cast of characters including the most dysfunctional royal family since the House of Atreus, a blood-soaked plot based on actual events, a plethora of haunting lines - how could the play not be as satisfying to watch as it is to read? But directors and designers are faced with the problem of how to stage some very, very bizarre scenes whilst treading a fine line between black comedy and unintentional humour; more than one production, including the RSC's last attempt, has come to grief by falling at this hurdle.

Apricot Theatre, a group of York University's recent graduates and current students, believe that "the best performances are those that are not scared to expose themselves as exactly what they are - pieces of make-believe". The audience, "the most important element of our performances", enters the auditorium to the strains of Marie Lloyd singing "Every Little Movement Has a Meaning of Its Own" and discovers the cast of six lurking at the rear of the stage, faces painted clown-white and wearing costumes that owe more to Victorian music hall/melodrama than to a Renaissance court (Ferdinand, sporting a fur coat and top hat, looks quite capable of killing his sister by tying her to the railway tracks). It should already be obvious that this won't be the most subtle production of the play you're likely to see, but it is absolutely riveting from beginning to end - puppets are used to great effect, especially in notorious "dead man's hand" scene, and there are some inspired visual gags (I won't spoil your enjoyment by revealing where the self-styled werewolf Ferdinand is kept prisoner )

This must be the first Duchess of Malfi in which the Cardinal is played by a woman - two women, in fact (Rachel King and Ros Steele, who also share the role of the Duchess) - and Ferdinand by actors of both sexes (Gillian Bayes and Robert Leigh). Mark Edel-Hunt, not content with directing and designing, also plays Cariola/Delio whilst Benedict Hitchens is Antonio/Julia. This sort of thing is no longer a novelty in Shakespeare but it's safe to say that Webster's genders have never been so bent! All the performances are of professional standard (although there are moments when diction could be a little clearer) and Musical Director Ros Steele deserves special mention - the actors are also called upon to sing, which they do superbly.

My only reservation about this inventive and highly entertaining production is that although the play is often cut in performance, some of Apricot's pruning - if you'll pardon the pun - seems a little excessive. Was it really necessary to deprive audiences of the famous "echo" scene, for example? But this is a minor quibble. Apricot Theatre's Duchess of Malfi succeeds in being, to quote their mission statement, "both disruptive and compelling"; the company has every reason to be proud of its first nationally touring production, which can be seen at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 10-30 August.

Touring to three London venues and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson