The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
The New Players Theatre
(2010)

Publicity photo

You are a young, beautiful widow, seeking passion, children and that special man, but live in a staunchly patriarchal world where your brothers can vet your every move. What to do? This is the plight that faces John Webster's ever popular Duchess of Malfi, who falls for a younger man of a different class, fulfils her desires, but must pay the ultimate price.

And what can a company do to make this perennial favourite different? The answer, for writer/director Dan Horrigan, is Circus, and it is a successful one. There is a duality about the topsy-turvy theatre of circus - for children, a place of mystery and wonder; for adults, often, evoking an uncanny sense of the grotesque.

Whilst in the main adhering to the original text, the production entwines itself around Tim Lenkiewicz's world of sawdust, acrobats, and hoopla (special mention goes here to the talents of 'hula-hoop' girl, Tiina Tuomisto).

However, the fortune tellers, bearded ladies and psychics mentioned in the flyer do not materialise and more commitment to this conceit (a magic mirror, capturing distorted reflections perhaps, or a crystal ball suggesting fate) would enable an audience to immerse itself into Webster's own world of false-seeming.

Tilly Middleton's Duchess is particularly strong in Act 2, displaying well-judged emotion as her fate gradually becomes a fait accompli. Alex Humes makes a nicely snarling Ferdinand - and is reminiscent of a (bald) Russell Brand.

Webster was a magpie, borrowing (quite legitimately, back then) from other playwrights and the Iago-inspired Bosola is rendered vividly by the compelling stage presence of James Sobol Kelly. After agreeing to be the brothers' spy, Kelly returns as a clown, his maquillage suggesting a deviousness and inscrutability that works as well now as it would have in Jacobean London, where face paint could suggest the evil of artifice.

The big difference between then and now is largely how a newly single woman is perceived by society and, with no synopsis in the programme, I wonder how those without prior knowledge of the plot would 'get' the fraternal condemnation, contempt and vicious machinations leveled at a sister who deigns to fall in love.

With the Coney Island 'freak show' setting of Love Never Dies just down the road on the Strand, this production is timely, in vogue, and - on a fraction of the budget - makes an ingenious use of props, lighting and at times quite chilling sound effects.

Those who do know the original will find the famous wax tableau scene omitted and must imagine 'the hand'. And yet, lines are retained that could have been cut to bring the play in line with Shakespeare's 'two hours traffic'. At two hours and forty minutes it is arguably a tad too long for modern tastes. But, with a little less dialogue, and a bit more circus, this could be a real winner.

Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler