The Duchess of Malfi at the New Players Theatre
Circus as metaphor for John Webster's anarchic world has a lot going for it. Intrigue and deceit generate mental acrobatics on all sides. With five corpses piled onstage at the end and a lot of gruesome surprises on the way, the overheated tragedy is replete with spectacle. The Italian setting invites comparisons with Comedia del'Arte and designer J William Davis' set and costumes were convincing. Sadly, they detracted from the overall impact of the play.
I was lucky enough to see Judi Dench and Helen Mirren give powerful performances onstage in London.Both brought out the resonance of 'I am entering a wilderness' , as the heroine decides to defy her brother , and the dignity of 'I am the Duchess of Malfi still' when calumny follows.
I 'd been curious for a while about visiting this theatre under the arches near Charing Cross that's better known for late night risqué cabarets than classical plays.
In seventeenth century Milan the widowed Duchess of Malfi is forbidden to marry by her excitable brother Ferdinand. He engages the cynical Bosola, ‘the only court gall’ to keep an eye on her while he’s away. The Duchess is in love with one of the few good men around, Antonio. His status as a groom makes him a bad match, but they go through a form of secret marriage and have three children before Ferdinand finds out.
Webster’s image-filled language was as superb and arresting as ever, the lines echoing recent usages, such as ‘Cover her face, mine eyes dazzle. She died too young’. or ‘Pleasure of Life, what is it? Merely the good days of an ague’. Webster’s themes - high-level corruption and male oppression – also account for its continuing popularity. It was good to be reminded at the present time that: '‘A politician is the devil’s quilted anvil’.
At first, the spare big-top set, with hurdy gurdy music, actrobatic scurrying up ropes and twirling hoola hoops was a pleasing novelty. The play opened with a wrestling match and ribbon-like ropes were used by extras to scatter paper snowflakes on th e exiled lovers. As the programme made clear, the company, appropriately named Vaulting Ambtion', was well- trained in circus arts.
There were too many occasions, though, when the production was over-strained Although the circus performers were mainly distanced from the action, except for the successful 'mad torment' scene, the concept jarred, despite Dan Horrigan's brisk direction. Dressing Tilly Middleton, the Duchess, for instance, in a sequinned mini-dress and a pony-tail hair-style topped with a pink scrunchy made it hard to preserve any sense of dignity. Her performance came across as dispirited when it should have been tragic.
The acting, it must be said, was generally lack-lustre, but as there were only seventeen of us for the matinee in the tiny theatre, it was perhaps unsurprising. What should have been shocking parts of the play - the severed hand and the poisoned book, the murders and even the waxen show were all understated and lost impact
In the stock seventeeth century role of ‘malcontent’, James Sobol Kelly 's Bosola was good , as the servant whose unrewarded merit has made him turn to evil, akin to Shakespeare's Iago. Here he's working, at least initially, under orders from above.
One of the most puzzling moments is when the Duchess’s maid, Cariola, delivers a jazz chorus from half-way up a ladder. Stephanie Brittain's cabaret delivery was pleasant, but the choice of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ pointless. It wasn’t as if it was designed to drown out the occasional sound of trains passing overhead. Another bizarre touch was the use of coathangers with small suits attached to represent the Duchess's doomed children. In another context it would have seemed inventive.Here it just added to the general clutter of a somewhat confusing the production.