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The Duchess of Malfi

by on 12 February 2020

Image-conscious

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

Putney Theatre Company at Putney Arts Theatre, until 15 February

A review by Matthew Grierson

Webster was, according to Eliot, much possessed by death, and this much is clear from the corpse-strewn tableau that concludes The Duchess of Malfi. But this intelligent, inventive production shows the tragedian was just as possessed by images – images that director Jaz Manville realises highly effectively in her pacey, dynamic staging. Attending closely to Webster’s verse, she draws out its images both visual and textual to intimate its contemporary resonances without ever imposing them on the play, or indeed on the audience.

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We are witness not only to the swift and often violent intrigues of the court, but to the way its protagonists manipulate these images: taking up a camera phone, they project close-ups of the action on to the wall behind, often contrasting with the full spectacle on stage.  Live footage of the Duchess (Rachel Hewer) being primped at the opening of the play contrasts with the sotto voce exchange between her brothers below her, in which they express concern about preserving the popular image of her as a dutiful widow.

Although the Duchess is capable of using imagery to her own ends when she frames her clandestine husband, Antonio (Graham White), to enable his escape, she is just as susceptible to its power, and takes the jerky video of his supposed death – the ‘wax presentations’ of Webster’s dialogue – as reality. Even her brother Duke Ferdinand (Henry Peters), who masterminds her death because he thinks she has tarnished her own image, is vulnerable to the images he has helped to propagate: the motifs of wolves and of animal prodigies in men’s likenesses are consummated with his descent into madness, when he prowls the stage in lycanthropic form. Prophecies, like the horoscope cast for the Duchess’s eldest, become self-fulfilling.

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Though each character pays homage to image, the cynicism with which they do so means they are prone to betray themselves dramatically before the audience – the one set of eyes they cannot hide from. The director is sudden with us in orchestrating these displays of hypocrisy, from the moment the Duchess tries it on with Antonio barely a beat after she has promised her brothers she will never remarry.

This does make her flirtation seem more wilful than passionate, however, and the chemistry between the lovers at this early point has the air of nursery children playing at mummies & daddies. This impression is somewhat confirmed by White’s boyish manner as the steward; he has a tendency to rush his lines, and looks at times to be dwarfed like an infant in his father’s coat. The scene in which Bosola feeds the Duchess apricots also strikes an odd tone, being played by Hewer with a comedy as bluff and broad as her northern vowels.

Where it counts, though, the cast convinces: a three-way exchange between the Duchess, Antonio and maid Cariola (Becki Dack) is touchingly natural in its light humour and shows the genuine warmth of the household, before the scene turns on a proverbial ducat to become menacing as Ferdinand arrives onstage. Peters glowers and stomps his way through the villainous role, until the murder of the Duchess sees a one-eighty in his conscience. Then, his performance deepens in maturity, as though his hatred and disgust of his sister had itself been so much childishness, and we see the hypocritical pity that presages the Duke’s descent into lunacy. Hewer likewise energises the Duchess’s distress in the darker second act with a raw and immediate performance, before facing her murder with a quiet dignity; ahead of her strangulation, which is pretty throaty, she reclaims her own image by composing herself for the phone being held by Bosola.

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As the character whose arc we follow throughout the play, Bosola’s may be the real tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi. ‘[A]s we observe in tragedies/That a good actor many times is curs’d/For playing a villain’s part’, he becomes the antihero the brothers have cast him as. He is afflicted by a persistent melancholy on being demobbed at the beginning of the play, which we might read as PTSD, and he falls into the brothers’ bad company as their ‘intelligencer’, reporting the Duchess’ doings back to them. Jerome Joseph Kennedy turns in a sardonic, haunted portrayal that ties together the play’s humour and horror. Always ready to speak truth to power, the murders he is commanded to undertake take their toll, and he turns on his masters, leading to the bloody finale.

Strong support comes from Alice Hope Wilson as Antonio’s confidant Delio, one of the few characters honest enough to survive the slaughter, Lucas Omar as the scheming Cardinal, and Lucy McIlgorm as his mistress Julia, a wanton contrast to the noble Duchess. The professional feel of the piece is enhanced by Cat Fuller’s simple but highly effective design, with a black stage augmented by a raised surround and steps and a wall of rivetted metal panels behind. Although access is freely made through a triangular section of curtain between them, and at either side, the space is quickly and effectively transformed into the Duke’s dungeon with light thrown through the rings of the ceiling. Hannah Hayden’s music, with its rhythmically eerie electronic cues, underscores this menacing ambience. The definite look of the piece is completed by the wardrobe, giving it a simplified mid-century feel – with their long coats and suitcases, the fleeing Duchess and her eldest child (Clara Tubiermont) put me in mind of evacuees during the Blitz – and goth flourishes for Bosola and the Cardinal.

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The production’s ability to make memorable images means that, long after the deaths of the Duchess, Cariola and Antonio, their bodies remain on the stage, propped up ragdoll-like as the remaining action takes place between them. It’s a fitting way to dramatise the title character’s declaration that ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’, and show how the moral consequences of the Duke and the Cardinal’s concern with image are closing in on them, restricting the scope of their power. Death-driven it may be, this is an energetic and engaging production that commands the audience’s attention, lingering in the mind’s eye like an after-image.

Matthew Grierson
February 2020

Photography by Ben Copping @benpretends

 

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