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FringeReview UK 2019

The Duchess of Malfi

Almeida Theatre

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: Almeida Theatre, Islington


Low Down

Directed by Rebecca Freknall and designed by Chloe Lamford. Lit by Jack Knowles with Sound by George Dennis and Costume by Nicky Gillibrand. Resident Designers for Set are Amy Hayden-Wason, Sound, Fizz Margereson, and Costume Finlay Forbes Gower. Till January 25th 2020.



Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Almeida in 2018 persuaded a near-masterpiece out of a near-Cinderella, breaking out into space and six pianos. By contrast Frecknall’s first production as Associate Director boxes in a masterpiece acclaimed – though only in the 20th century. With The Duchess of Malfi, any persuasion will fascinate.

That it’s another Almeida box – a perplex in Perspex – is freighted with real point though. One theme Webster developed beyond Shakespeare, even Middleton, was mental distress. His brilliant bitty metaphors and all-sorts similes heighten the effect, here pruned carefully (though I miss ‘fantastical puff-paste’ alone trimmed from Bosola’s persuasion to death). Here persecutor and patient shimmer, swap roles and shimmy on both sides. It’s breaking into a fourth wall then out again.

Two brothers intent on preventing their young widowed sister from marrying again has savage relevance beyond #MeToo in this unspecific modern-dress production with lean costumes by Nicky Gillibrand slinking into and out of vulnerable slips, where no-one wears shoes.

The twinship of the Duchess and her minutes-younger sibling Ferdinand is explored with unusual poignancy. It’s not simply the unhinged Ferdinand’s obsession, but that mutual ground between them he violates. More is done to Lydia Wilson’s searingly gentle Duchess than a brother’s lycanthropic frenzy: it’s a previous intimacy he shatters, more than incestuous feeling.

Webster’s 1614 The Duchess of Malfi with its Iago-like Daniel de Bosola turning avenger of the woman he kills is so potent it’s best to let tragedy speak its truth. So the glass box receding and returning with white headliners projected – ‘A Birth’, ‘A Trap’, ‘A Banishment’ ‘A Reckoning’ – threatens Peter Greenaway territory (remember him?). That’s a pity because elsewhere in this production new truths speak out, through or despite the gleaming cluster of Dr Caligari cabinets downstage right and left, where characters remove and replace silver poisoned chalices or black blood.

Stripped of sacramental violation – the elder brother’s a Cardinal, we lose that perversion – Chloe Lamford’s design contains all instruments of power behind glass. Most of all though her box of light tiling suggests an asylum where ECT might burn through you. Spectrally lit by Jack Knowles with his trademark sculpting and selective beams, the potentially neon haunts in shadows as Knowles’ brilliance with nimbus and liminality reaches its apogee in the climax.

It’s not simply Wilson’s Duchess and faithful ‘woman’ Cariola, (Ioanna Kimbook, sadly loyal, sudden for life in her last moments) confined there. On occasion Jack Riddiford’s Ferdinand trembles to Michael Marcus’s youthful Cardinal: they’re often self-incarcerated Frecknall suggests. Each sequestered in his hate.

The brothers convince as close in age, vigour and venom. A shivery dysfunction closes round the only sibling (pace Bosola’s line) to give forth heat or light. Riddiford is all flinch and fleer as well as fury, hesitating outright passion because he knows where it’ll lead. Ferdinand’s rage here suggests a man precisely unable to give vent to all he feels.

Marcus makes of his role a disdainful lucidity, a light-toned Machiavel rather than the heavier kind so often inferred by rank. Cardinals could be twelve. Marcus suggests this one has thousands of murders stretched before him it’d be a shame to curtail; on a Florentine deciding to poison his mistress when she demands a truth (driven by her lust to do service to the concealed Bosola).

Yet the abiding image of this production is love. Wilson’s Duchess has already decided on her new husband, her Steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla). First marriages were family-foisted on children. Widows remarrying though, choosing for themselves a younger lover, often of ‘inferior’ rank, is as Dympna Callaghan reminds us in one of several superb programme essays – Jacobean fare: a monstrous regiment on the march. When Wilson insinuates a wriggly salmon to make a point about value at the point of death, it’s not only riveting but an assertion of wholly different thinking.

Webster affirms it. Wilson’s Duchess sculpts desire. It’s delicate, though never cool, still conscious of rank but more conscious of love. As she expresses it’s her curse of rank to play wooer and in a wondrously drawn-out exchange with Abdalla you can see their mutuality warm itself as Antonio understands his love’s more than returned. Abdalla combines quiet dispatch, nobility and humility – and a touching final speech. He’s more nearly an equal than any other Antonio, clearly deserving love. The hushed intimacy, sheer timing of this scene is mesmerising. And heart-rending And it’s followed through in every exchange thereafter, the couple and their fragile progeny, their flight with suitcases, their devastated leave-taking so beautifully pointed by Webster in a cold kiss.

As Bosola, Leo Bill’s cold kiss of death is again turned to intimacy, and revolting from his former self he’s wrought by his own infatuation. Already spurned in service by the Cardinal, he expects scant reward by doing the brothers’ service; indeed you wonder why he’s bothered. Bill makes of his asides – he starts the play with a monologue here too – a man who sounds different to everyone else: a paid-off provincial soldier ultimately out of his depth with humanity. Inhumanity is all he knows, all he can introduce like another virus, without a clue to his own immune system.

Frecknall in ensuring it’s Bosola not henchman who executes the Duchess makes of it a love scene behind glass. Already remorseful, Bill’s Bosola is truck by the Duchess’ welcome of death, after he’s convinced her her whole family are dead with waxworks (Ferdinand’s bid to mortify her first). Wilson’s inspection of the noose in about ten lines puts in action anything of, say, Isabella’s mere fancies in Measure for Measure. This Duchess really will embrace death as a bride longing had been sick for. Bill’s Bosola pays out respect in a length of rope. Their mutual arrangement of it snaps his own stranglehold. It’s the most convincing transformation of Bosola I’ve seen.

Elsewhere there’s brief fine work from Shalini Peiris’ Julia, the Cardinal’s poisoned mistress. People once dispatched tend to haunt from the glass divide though from this bourn travellers return quite often. Wilson herself not only haunts but turns Ferdinand’s doctor – a brilliant suggestion of his own hallucinatory conscience. Ciarán Owens’ loyal friend to Antonio, Delio, projects solid sense you could walk across, and you regret too he’s not heeded. Smaller roles are taken with clarity by Jethro Skinner and Kalungi Ssebandeke; Hadassah Allen and Jersey Blu Georgia alternate as the daughter (not son) who alone of the children survives to transmit a matrinlineal posterity.

The howevers here are swiftly dealt with. Use of microphones on occasion work spectacularly, as with the echo scene – one of George Dennis’s triumphs in sound design. No quibbles with those behind glass either. Though taking up a microphone disturbs the production’s power. More curious is Frecknall’s flinch from gore-fest, turning it into a ballet and robbing the finale of its gleeful tragic force. In a manner recalling Marianne Elliott’s Women Beware Women at the national in 2010, with tis carousel of death in mind, it’s s if Frecknall doesn’t quite believe in Webster. We’re here subjected to Knowles’ stealing the light show as Caravagio, with his underlit, spectrally sharp virtuosity. Bodies are beautifully sculpted in light as characters collapse in slow motion, applying the courts black blood to themselves (which darkens counsel: is everyone guilty?).

Worse, it being the season for Dido’s Lament this year, we’re subjected to yet another. Alan Ayckburn’s ‘December bee’ buzzes in the mind instead. After all the techno-beats we might have had something more imaginative than the Farewell Adagio: Barbara Strozzi was born in 1619: suitably treated, one of her compositions would make a strong feminist point, and she’s not alone.

Overall, the scalpel and scruple of class and coolness breaking into tragedy gifts us three outstanding moments: the absolute mutuality of the Duchess and Antonio; Ferdinand’s violation of his twin; and Bosola’s conversion. The brothers too come off well in their mutuality and but for the distance of gimmick and fear of explosive denouements this production opens new ground to the dead, and finds them back behind glass. They still seem pent, waiting for a final explosion.