When Shakespeare's Globe announced the opening of its indoor Jacobean theatre, a few emails were exchanged between Londonist and a friend. "Bet you one of the first plays is The Duchess of Malfi," said our friend. We have very wise friends. What else could they possibly have started with? Still performed often these days, and perhaps one of the best known Jacobean plays, John Webster's Duchess of Malfi is a surefire crowdpleaser to pack 'em in and show off the new playhouse.
Brief outline of the plot: the widowed Duchess secretly marries her steward, Antonio, and has two pregnancies by him. Her swelling belly sparks rumour and scandal, which reaches the ears of her scheming, dangerous brothers. The marriage is discovered and the lovers flee. This being John Webster, everything ends in blood and gore*. And this being the Globe, it's a sumptuous production. Gemma Arterton is a young, morally upright Duchess, but the limelight (candlelight?) is really stolen by three men: James Garnon as a Sahara-dry witted Cardinal, David Dawson terrifyingly insane as Ferdinand and Sean Gilder, whose murderer-turned-penitent Bosola could do with lending some of his passion and guts to Alex Waldmann's Antonio, who seems rather overwhelmed by events.
So that's the play, what of the theatre? Whinges out of the way first: despite having a 21st century ventilation system it does get hot, though the second half was less stuffy than the first – perhaps due to fewer candles being lit, perhaps to the couple in the next seats not coming back after the interval. The seats aren't as hard as those in the Globe (though no option to rent a cushion as yet), but without a backrest some of the seats in the lower galleries could get uncomfortable. We were sat in the upper gallery so spent most of the performance leaning forward (about a quarter of the stage is blocked), so that's one mixed blessing.
But these turn out to be minor niggles compared to the experience. It's such a small space that music and voices easily fill the room – even a whispered gasp is audible, and a bellow goes straight through you. The atmospherics created by candlelight are breathtaking, the increasing gloom during the second act makes the death, destruction and insanity even more unsettling. The pitch black scene at the start of Act Two is particularly powerful. There's nothing like it anywhere else in the country.
*If you're not familiar with John Webster, the joke from the film Shakespeare in Love will have passed you by but well illustrates the man's work. Remember the boy who likes torturing animals and says "Plenty of blood, that's the only writing"? That's John Webster...
See also: Inside The Globe's New Candlelit Theatre
Tickets for the Duchess of Malfi are all sold out, though check with the box office for returns. Book now for The Knight of the Burning Pestle, The Malcontent, Ellen Terry with Eileen Atkins and candlelit concerts. Tickets £10-£60. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is part of the Shakespeare's Globe on Bankside. Londonist paid for tickets to this production.