Duchess of Malfi, Lazarus Theatre Company
Indeed this doesn't happen too often on London's fringe theatre scene (as long as you discount A Midsummer Night's Dream, yawn) - two productions of the same text and the same time! John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi has a reputation for being highly gruesome and bizarre (incest, wolf obsession, death by kissing a poisoned bible - anyone?), as well as being incredibly difficult to stage.
Black Sun Theatre Company have a tempestuous Duchess who witnesses her world crumble the moment she steps out of her designated role as a young widow, a constraint she appears to have been chafing against for some time. The production manages to bring out the humour of a 17th century text and not shy away from its leaden metaphors and fantastical means of killing your enemies / loved ones. There's a great scene of the Duchess being institutionalised, left with mad people for neighbours in an effort to turn her mad by her brother Ferdinand - excellently rendered here by Black Sun's chorus who also elicit lots of fun from minor characters such as various dukes and doctors.
Lazarus' handsomely designed adaptation of the same text focuses more on the Duchess' story, leaving the final act out of it (in both senses of the word) and is an eloquent and heartfelt depiction of a stately woman caught in a rich yet claustrophobic society which would see fit to trade her. Inspired by Pundrunk and Shared Experience (slow motion and spotlights present and correct), director Ricky Dukes transposes the action to 40s England with chairs and bodies flying through the air as chandeliers and bodies come crashing down to the ground. There are strong performances from Malfi's brothers, though it's less character led than Black Sun's piece. Natalie Lesser in the lead role is dignified and graceful - it's hard to believe she's acting.
We have to say both pieces felt a bit too long, but applaud both companies' ambition in bringing this much talked about but rarely staged challenging Jacobean classic to the fringe.
By Claire Cooke