The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
Royal & Derngate, Northampton
(2010)

The Duchess of Malfi publicity image

The lavish 1884 interior of the Royal Theatre, now part of the ultra-modern Royal & Derngate in Northampton, plays host to a dark and sinister play from the early seventeenth century. The audience might sit in their plush seats surrounded by Victorian gilded opulence, but as soon as the ornate fire curtain rises we enter a nightmare world of intrigue, deceit, incestuous desire and murder. John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, is brought magnificently to blooded life in Laurie Sansom’s astonishing new production.

Astonishing indeed. All too often Webster’s gory histrionics outweigh the underlying beauty of this fascinating play. In Sansom’s hands, The Duchess of Malfi becomes an aural and visual delight, with the contemporary music of the late Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, the Prince of Venosa, complementing the action and adding to the intensity of the theatrical experience. If Webster provides his reading of a true story in Italy’s dangerous past, then Gesualdo, who actually murdered his first wife and her lover, provides the musical equivalent of passionate love, guilt and ultimate retribution. Gesualdo was tried and found innocent of any offence. The bitter heritage of his life reverberates through the visceral madrigals that now accompany Webster’s drama.

The poor duchess of the play is a widow. Her two brothers, one a duke, the other a Cardinal in Rome, are eager she should not remarry, especially as her worldly goods would pass to any new husband so diminishing their own right to her fortune. Secretly, the duchess does marry. Far worse, she weds her steward. This marriage beneath her social status is worthy of scandal, not least because she proceeds to bear three children to the lowly individual.

On hearing of their sister’s indiscretion, the brothers seek revenge, first by imprisoning the duchess, and then by hounding her husband and children. Death ensues, its harbinger the murderous spy and lackey Bosola, whose task is to infiltrate the duchess’ world and learn her secrets. Bosola might be the hand of death for the duchess, but his sense of guilt ensures that she does not die alone. All who plot and murder suffer by the end of the play, the dead symbolically stationed at the rear of the stage like exhibits in some Cabinet of Curiosity.

For this sorry tale, Ruth Sutcliffe has designed an intriguing set. The stage is dominated by a cross-like structure that allows an upstage acting platform, high above the main acting-space below. Access to this platform is from a central tower. The result? Hidden recesses and entranceways, where nuptial four-poster beds conceal passionate embraces or religious iconography, whilst the downstage expanse can harbour a confessional booth ripe for sexual liaisons or the stark metal bunk of a madhouse cell.

The first half of the play takes place in various royal or religious palaces. There is a velvety blackness about this world, its dissected backcloth dominated by giant details from a Caravaggio painting. The set, when strategically lit, subtly suggests a golden cross, its religious imagery seared into the audience’s eyes as they behold the action before them. The second half, set in the lunatic asylum to which the brothers banish their unfortunate sister, uses the same structure stripped to its bare scaffolding skeleton. Instead of a golden cross, the scene’s religiosity is represented by stark neon tubes that burn their white-cold Christian authority on the action below.

In both these worlds, of opulence and austere despair, the Duchess of Malfi shines as a beacon of honesty and passion. Charlotte Emmerson gives a fine naturalistic performance as the duchess, her delivery of the dialogue occasionally altering the musicality of the verse, whilst offering instead an intensity and comic nuance that adds to the audience’s sympathy for her character. Her love for Nick Blood’s Antonio is totally understandable. This honest servant is at once vulnerable and alluring as the gauche recipient of the duchess’s ardour.

Luke Neal is an impressive Ferdinand, whose barely hidden lust for his sister, and role in her murder, leads ultimately to his own mental destruction. It is Ferdinand who has become the darling of twenty-first century horror lovers keen to identify with Webster’s early evocation of lycanthropic metamorphosis. Likewise, Daniel Fredenburgh offers a lustful Cardinal, as at home in the corridors of political power as in the arms of a married woman. These brothers have little in their characters to redeem them. Neal and Fredenburgh are dutifully sinister in the everyday malice of their actions.

Their ploy? To employ the services of an ex-offender, Bosola, played with absolute malevolence by David Caves. Caves slithers into the duchess’s life like an envenomed serpent, his every word and action foretelling her deadly fortune. This Bosola is an arch-intelligencer. His sense of right might not lead to his own salvation, but it does offer the opportunity to atone for the sins of those who have murdered their way in self-righteous misogynism.

Also worthy of mention is the excellent Claire Dargo, who plays both the duchess’ waiting woman Cariola and the Cardinal’s mistress, Julia. Both characters meet with sticky ends. Dargo manages to create two completely distinct women. We engage with both and we suffer as they suffer. Indeed, as Dargo’s Cariola is dragged screaming offstage to meet her fate, it is impossible not to feel haunted by the reality of her shrieks and the inevitability of her demise.

So, a fine production from beginning to end. But that is not all. As if to transform this wonderful re-presentation of a Jacobean revenge tragedy into a modern theatrical masterpiece, Sansom elects to integrate Gesualdo’s madrigals into the drama, having them sung by a troupe of male singers who also people the scenes. Whether removing the black-veiled mourning headdress of the duchess as she emerges from her chapel, or strangling the same poor woman when directed by Bosola to do so, these singers accompany their actions with the most exquisite a capella music.

Jake Arditti, Michal Czerniawski, Adam Kowalczyk, Edward Lee and Philip Tebb transform this great drama into a melodramatic masterpiece in its purest, non-judgemental sense. It is wondrous to hear their vocal dexterity and to appreciate how musical the original performances at the small indoor Blackfriars playhouse or the Globe must have been. Shakespeare was still the principal sharer at the time Webster wrote the play. It seems inconceivable that the ‘boss’ would not have had a say in accepting it in the repertory or of ensuring there was music to accompany the original performances. Sansom’s brave concept is perfectly in accord with the play’s heritage.

The Duchess of Malfi at Northampton is a wondrous theatrical event. Its ridiculously short run means that few will see this painfully magical production. Sansom has added more layers of dramatic and musical intensity to an already intense play. In doing so, he has offered an alternative insight into the way seventeenth century Protestant audiences viewed the murderous excess of Catholic Italy, whilst exploring the cultural diversity of Italian music and art, brilliantly juxtaposing it onto this quintessentially English Jacobean drama.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby