John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is not for the faint-hearted: vengeance, cruelty and murders; poison, stabbings and strangulation — all propel this play to its status as one of the great renaissance tragedies.
This production by Eyestrings, a company proclaiming to "Rebel against convention to unleash the brutal, beautiful and visceral nature [of the classics]" is exceptionally confident and polished. The 1920's setting works beautifully, despite some minor anomalies such as the appearance of a dictaphone for use by the spy, Bosola, and the credit cards passed between the cast to represent gold. The opening scene sets the pace and is both original and striking. The fixed grimaces and facades of the characters tell us all may not be well in the court of Malfi.
The tragedy centres on the plight of the young widowed Duchess (Kelly Hotten) and her decision not only to remarry, something her brothers had forbade her to do, but to marry Antonio (Edmund Wiseman), a steward deemed far beneath her. Her brothers, the lunatic Ferdinand (Orlando James) and the outwardly saintly, but inwardly vicious Cardinal (George Taylor), enact their vengeance through the spy and assassin, Bosola. Played by Philip Cairns, Bosola’s compliance has boundaries, and once these are crossed the play is propelled to its final tragedy.
Despite playing in a small space, this production is slick and smooth. The minimal props are put to excellent use and the action never feels constrained. Strong performances play across the board and Webster’s poetic prose is delivered boldly and passionately. With a running time of 90 minutes, it is fast paced and engaging.
The lighting and sound designs are simple, but notably good. This could, and should, be playing a bigger theatre; it is difficult to recommend it highly enough. You have until 30 September to catch this.
The Duchess of Malfi is showing at the White Bear Theatre until 30 September 2012. Tickets are £14 (£10 concessions).
By Rachel Phillips