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The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
Greenwich Theatre
(2010)

Production photo

Who would want to have brothers like those Webster gives his Duchess? Could there be any worse than Antonio, who is Duke of Calabria, and his sibling the Cardinal, who is never given a personal name. The first is hoping to inherit his widowed sister's lands and wealth so does not want her to marry, both are concerned that she should not lower the prestige of their family and could there also be an element of jealous incestuous lust?

Fun has often been made at the expense of Webster's blood-drenched plots but this one is actually based on fact and a real Duchess, and although the names of her brothers have been changed, her second husband was indeed Antonio Bologna.

Though by the end there are pools of blood upon the black and white tiled stage and we have seen dismembered limbs, hanging bodies, two strangulations, two infanticides, a sudden poisoning and a succession of fatal stabbings, director Elizabeth Freestone does not wallow in the gore but concentrates on a clear exposition of the machinations of the malicious plotters. She and designer Neil Irish have placed it in the mid twentieth century Italy, its uniforms like those of the regime led by Mussolini, its cruelties reflecting the harshness of the Fascist terror, though here the scores are private and there is no political connection unless you count the aristocratic arrogance that counts lesser lives as having any value. Even the rounded arches that circle the black walls of the set, sometimes silvered by Wayne Dowdeswell's up-lighting, have a suggestion of the buildings of the neo-imperial Esposizione Universale Roma and of Fascist rallies.

Against this Aislin McGuckin's Duchess stands out as a gentle, upright individual who values people for themselves, not their rank or position, although, knowing that it would meet with disgusted disapproval, she keeps her marriage to her low-born steward Antonio a secret. Quite how when she has three children by him was probably easier with early seventeenth century dresses but that's not a problem as scenes move quickly through the years. This is a confident, modern woman in that she refuses to be tied by aristocratic convention and male domination but she has to pay the highest price for her self-determination.

Although the Duchess is the titular centre of the story, in different productions the emphasis has fallen on other characters. Sometimes on Bosola, the tool the evil brothers use to do their dirty work, a man who is split by good feelings and what he sees as duty to his masters, played here by Tim Treloar with a stern intensity that allows only brief glimpses at his innate integrity, or on the debauched and dangerous Cardinal (Mark Hadfield, a dominant figure in his red robes who changes into uniform like those renaissance cardinals who went to war) or on crazed Ferdinand (Tim Steed) who literally goes mad, confined to a n asylum as a lycanthrope.

In this production, from the opening gun salute fired at the Duke of Amalfi's funeral, Adrienne Quartly's sound score makes an important contribution right through the play, each character gets precedence according to the scene, for this is a fine piece of ensemble playing which earths the action in reality rather than excess. It is a play that can take histrionic pyrotechnics but here they are subservient to the overall pattern of Webster's escalating horrors.

I saw this play on the same day as the same company's production of Ben Jonson's Volpone, and it was an especially pleasure to be able to see the same actors playing such totally different roles in the two plays and who can deliver seventeenth-century verse and prose with such fluency and intelligence.

In repertoire with "Volpone" until 10th April
This production will be recorded for DVD by Stage on Screen who are co-producers.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton