The Duchess of Malfi

First published 13 September 2012, Author: Matthew Preston

This production by Eyestrings Theatre Company, produced by a company set up by a member of the often excellent Cheek By Jowl, took a hack-saw to the original text and adopted a fully modern approach to the staging of this Jacobean classic.

On a thrust stage in Southwark Playhouse’s Large space, the cast threw themselves around in stylised and exaggerated movements. The Large space is a medium-sized almost cube; the walls still showing plaster and the raked bench seating clearly set up to give companies the maximum  flexibility when staging productions. There was a draught, but then the SP would not be the only place to be caught out by the sudden onset of our inclement autumn.

The space was well utilised for the Duchess of Malfi; the action rotated around with an energy that was entirely appropriate to the source material. At various stages the actors created tableaux against the back wall and even clambered up to the sound and lighting booth. Actors not in the current scene would freeze in place (my party was most impressed by the length of time the actor playing Bosola stood holding a tray with a single hand at the start…) or move as ghosts in the eyelines of the active cast. The lighting was atmospheric but unobtrusive; the use of well-chosen props allowing the transformation of the industrial space into the richly adorned court of Malfi and then a dungeon. Most effective was the torture scene, where the increasingly sadistic duke read out stage directions over a microphone, thus inculpating both himself as protagonist and us as voyeurs in the violence.

However, however, something was missing. It was hard to sympathise with Beatrice Walker’s duchess. After being promisingly introduced in glowing terms by the beau she’s set her sights on, her subsequent pursuit seemed too sudden and hence shallow. Did I believe in the cardinal as a scheming spider, suffocated by the webs he had woven? Was the Duke’s illicit passion thrilling, revolting or merely a plot device? Did Julia’s abandonment of the Cardinal for Bosola’s arms seem in character? The truth behind all these questions is that it was hard to engage in the play. The physicality of the theatre both breathed new life into but also subdued the impact of the language and the occasional mumbling by the cast did not help here either.

The blame does not sit solely on the actors though; the play was severely abridged and even in its longer version, Webster’s play will always suffer in comparison to Shakespeare (which seems harsh, but as time passes they become ever more contemporaneous).  This was a valiant attempt with some interesting ideas, but in the end the play was little more than a precursor to modern horror films with any subtlety of characterisation disappearing beneath every increasing mounds of bodies.

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