The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
Lazarus Theatre Company
Blue Elephant Theatre

Production photo

To be technically correct this is not so much The Duchess of Malfi as a play based on Webster's work and bearing the same name. Large amounts of text have been cut, including the whole of the last act, bringing it down from marathon to sprint proportions, and the action has been re-set in 1940s London.

I can well imagine that the purists will take a dim view and think 'dumbing-down'-type thoughts and that's not entirely unfair. By concentrating on the love story and finishing the action at the death of the Duchess, the other key themes of the original are expunged along with a good deal of the drama in terms of madness, confession, murder and accident leading to the final high body count.

Lazarus Theatre Company describe themselves as being inspired by the likes of Punch Drunk and Shared Experience and this is much in evidence - what we get is a Jacobean play, in a 20th century setting presented in a yet more modernistic style.

In the end though does it work? Well, yes and no. It functions well enough with the relationship between the Duchess and Antonio being the central drive for the piece, and by focussing on her character and ending where it does, the injustice and tragedy of her treatment and death at the hand of her brothers is highlighted by being singled-out.

Setting the piece in the male-dominated turbulent 1940s allows some reasonable parallels to be drawn with the social structure in the play but re-locating the action to London has its problems - among them, why would the Duchess urge her husband to flee to post-war Milan? In the after-show discussion this choice was not satisfactorily justified, but in fairness the director was not able to be there to explain his reasoning in person.

Director Ricky Dukes and Tim McFarland, responsible for Movement, made some questionable choices whilst at other times providing some very effective staging. What was enhanced by the latter was detracted from by the former: having the cast stand on the sidelines throughout the play made for efficient scene changes and hinted productively at the sense of intrigue, scheming and whispering at court but inhibited the representation of the passage of time, thereby diminishing the issues around the years of secrecy and concealment.

In the final act where the Duchess is tortured prior to her death - which incidentally was uncomfortably similar to an equivalent scene in Jonathan Kent's Marguerite - she is hit with the high-heel of a shoe. It is a penetrating snap-shot that carries a fleeting but sharp image of viciousness, but the power of the scene is depreciated by the perpetrator having to limp away, one leg three inches shorter than the other.

What I will remember with most pleasure from The Duchess of Malfi is some skilful ensemble work and Natalie Lesser's striking performance as the heroine, her confidence with the text providing a clarity that was often absent elsewhere, her conviction evidence of a promising career ahead.

"The Duchess of Malfi" runs until Saturday 4th April with performances Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm. There is no interval. There is a post-show discussion on 31st March.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti

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