The Duchess of Malfi

John Webster
Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

Lydia Wilson and Leo Bill Credit: Marc Brenner
Lydia Wilson and Jack Riddiford Credit: Marc Brenner
Shalini Peiris, Leo Bill, Lydia Wilson, Ioanna Kimbook and Khalid Abdalla Credit: Marc Brenner

Rebecca Frecknall’s distinctive, auteurial directing style presents a very different version of Webster’s revenge tragedy from most of those seen down the ages since the play was first performed over 400 years ago.

This modern staging’s greatest strength is undoubtedly the way in which it highlights the acting skills of Lydia Wilson in the title role.

Set designer Chloe Lamford has created three distinct areas based around museum-style cases, the largest of which is big enough to house several actors, symbolically trapped behind glass in what looks like an unwelcoming sports club changing room.

If this setting gives little idea of period, Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are equally amorphous, generally modern but with something of a period twist, particularly those worn by the Duchess and her two brothers. What they fail to convey is the status of a trio who comprise a cardinal, a Duke and a Duchess, such that it can be difficult to distinguish between the priest and the nobleman.

The evening opens as the recently-widowed Duchess seduces Khalid Abdalla’s Antonio, soon secretly becoming mother to three children by him.

The secrecy is essential, since her scheming brothers, Jack Riddiford as Duke Ferdinand and Michael Marcus playing the Cardinal have other plans.

For many, the most interesting character in the play is always Bosola, played on this occasion by Leo Bill. He is a common man used as a blunt weapon to keep the brothers’ hands clean, getting some of the best speeches, although these are not always enunciated as clearly as one might wish.

Sacrificing the period look and with it the political and social mores of the time has both pros and cons.

On the plus side, viewers have little choice but to concentrate on the actors and their speeches. For the most part, they are foregrounded and cleverly lit by Jack Knowles to enhance the impact.

Against this, the 2¾-hour production can lack coherence, particularly in a present-day setting when class and religion, not to mention gender politics, have completely different connotations from those when Webster set his grim masterpiece.

In addition to changing the setting, this version also tweaks some of the plotlines, not always for the better. A degree of the dark sophistication of the original is compromised, as a result.

There are some beautiful vignettes, none more so than an operatic ending that looks like some old master. However, it is preceded by a scene that looks as if it came straight out of a Hammer Horror movie.

Lydia Wilson is the undoubted star of the show, just as good when flirting as mourning and always able to show the speed of her character’s brain as well as her courage.

Leo Bill provides excellent support, while Michael Marcus successfully makes one’s flesh creep at exactly the right moments.

Pared-down modern productions have become increasingly fashionable of late, especially at the Almeida, and this kind of evening has to be viewed on its own merits.

On this occasion, the power of the play gains little from the staging, even though it has other strengths, not least the way in which viewers are given an opportunity to compare the ways in which these nobles abuse their power with the antics of some of the world’s highest profile politicians today.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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