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The Duchess of Malfi

by on 24 October 2021

Foul Melancholy Ennobled

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster

Richmond Shakespeare Society at the Mary Wallace Theatre until 30th October

Review by Celia Bard

Prior to attending this production of The Duchess of Malfi, I learnt that the audience was to be transported to the 21st century and that we were about to watch the machinations of a powerful celebrity family.  The revised performing version would be shorter in length and the cast would be reduced from fifteen to seven with some doubling up.  I must admit to feeling a level of curiosity as to how Webster’s Jacobean revenge drama would play out.  With this loss of text I wonder whether I would I recognise the characters?  Would the Duchess’ brother, the Cardinal be as corrosive a force?  Would that Iago-like character, Bosola, be as chameleon a figure as represented in the text, and how would Webster’s text come across to a 21st century audience?  What would the set look like and of course costumes?  Some two hours and forty minutes later, I was able to answer many of these questions.

An interesting juxtaposition meets the eye of the audience on entering the auditorium.  On the front wall of either side of the stage, are two video screens displaying the title of the play.  The set itself consists of a two central Roman columns signifying the entrance to grand buildings associated with ancient Rome.  Rich looking curtain hangings drape the whole of the back wall of the stage and the whole of the stage is illuminated by a mixture of purple and red lighting, creating an atmosphere of melancholy, danger and pomp.  This juxtaposition creates an illusion of a television stage set without the cameras.

This foul melancholy will poison all his goodness

Part of the success of this production, I believe, is due to the subtle use of video technology.  This has allowed the director, John Buckingham, to convey the mood and content of scenes that may have otherwise been lost, e.g. the domestic scene of a father playing with his son in the garden lovingly watched by the Duchess, his wife; and later the terrifying scene played out in the Chapel where the Cardinal yanks the wedding ring off from the Duchess’s finger and throws it against the alter thus disputing the legitimacy of her marriage to Antonio.

Video clips are used also to indicate a change of setting, an important consideration in this production, as the set changes are minimal and are often dominated by a large bed, hence the danger of audience confusion as to whose bed chamber we are in, namely the Cardinal’s or the Duchess’s.  Visual titles of place appearing on the TV screens prevent this from happening.  Likewise video images of Presidents Biden and Trump, a game of polo in progress, and one of Coronavirus, complete with spikes, succeed in letting the audience know that the play is set in the 21st century, that times are dangerous and that the main characters are rich, influential and powerful.  In my mind, the use of 21st century media in this production do not detract from Webster’s text and play, more they aid the audience understanding and appreciation of play and plot and also help to engender a sense of pace.

Guilt, death, suffering, misogyny, injustice, inequality, class are all themes that can be found in Webster’s play.  How characters are killed and psychologically tortured are there, as in the original text, mostly by poisoning, strangulation, knifings and trickery.  To this, add in Buckingham’s production gunshots and drug injections.  The two brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria and The Cardinal, with the unenthusiastic support of Daniel de Bosola, who is described as a spy, succeed in bringing hell to earth.  Indeed Bosola, who holds a grudge against the Cardinal describes him as ‘more of a devil than the devil himself’ and goes on to describes his brother as being no better.  Vaughn Pierce as the Cardinal gives a very convincing portrayal of this character.  His outer friendly-looking demeanour contrasts sharply with his vicious acts of bribery, cruelty, scheming and sexual lust.  Ferdinand, played by Peter Easterbrook, well captures the madness of this character.   The look in his eyes when suffering bouts of psychosis is quite frightening.   I think his last scene with the doctor erred on the ridiculousness, but in all honest I would say that this was due to interpretation of the doctor, played by Amy Dodero, who otherwise was just brilliant as Giovanna, Duchess of Malfi.

One favourite scene of many for me in this play was that between Giovanna and Antonio Bologna, acted by Luciano Dodero.  The Duchess is widowed, and falls in love with her lowly steward, Antonio.  Dodero makes all the running.  She is flirtatious, teasing, but is determined that Antonio will be her next husband.  Although he holds back and is clearly worried about the consequences of such a union, he is unable to resist the lures of The Duchess.  Both are just superb in this scene, and they are clearly characters that both actors have fully exploited.

Sometimes difficult in a play, is the doubling up of characters and Charlotte Horobin as Cariola, the Duchess’s maid and then Julia, a courtesan, was not able to draw a strong enough distinction between the two.  She did, however, have some very strong moments: her poisoning by the Cardinal, the sexual encounter between her and Bosola, and her screams when the babies are killed.  Her projection here was strong and this held the audience interest.

Bosola is such an interesting character, and Terry Bedell is well cast as this character.  Interestingly as noted by Antonio at the beginning of the play who says of him, “I have heard he’s very valiant. This foul melancholy will poison all his goodness”.  Bedell exploits this aspect of Bosola’s character, really well portraying him initially as rough and brutish, willing to sell his soul, but he cannot escape the more noble and valiant side of his character, and this ends in his demise.  Bosola has some really great speeches, and my goodness didn’t Bedell deliver them well.

Delio acts as sounding board for his friend, Antonio.  Played sensitively by Simon Bartlett, he is also a reliable source of information to the audience.

For me there was moment at the end of the play, which didn’t quite work.  I’m aware that it is always difficult to get rid of a whole lot of bodies off the stage especially when dead.  Suddenly then to pop up again, speak a line and sidle off is doubly difficult and errs towards slapstick.  The thought struck me that an alternative plan, a video technological one, might have been a possibility; however, I am nit-picking.  The Duchess of Malfi as directed by John Buckingham and acted by members of the Richmond Shakespeare Society is skilfully performed and is a production well worth seeing.

Celia Bard, October 2021

Photography by Simone Germaine

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