The funereal opening scene, marking the Duchess a widow
This time last year there were two tragic Duchesses vying for your theatrical pounds. Greenwich Theatre's production opened this week as part of their second 'Stage on Screen' season, reviving classic texts for performance and committing them to DVD, particularly for educational purposes. Great, then, that the audience was packed with not just press last night, but plenty of students too.
Webster's tragedy is set here against the background of emerging war in twentieth century Europe, lending a bleak backdrop to this macabre play of princely paranoia, which blossoms into a love story but rapidly spirals into betrayal, heartbreak and slaughter.
This production does particularly well at bringing out Webster's verse, making it sound surprisingly fresh and modern in places and certainly accessible. There's humour that we've not picked up in other productions, however wry, and Ferdinand's incestuous feelings towards his widowed sister are particularly vile and ill-concealed, making for a truly corrupt and vicious Duke to abhor, without lapsing into panto villain. Add to this a virtuous sexiness between the dignified good Duchess and her handsomely honest Antonio and some lovely passionate moments between them and the audience is won over. Yet the portents of doom mount up until at the end of Act I the distraught Duchess puts misplaced faith in the amoral yet intelligent spy, Bosola and you fear what's to come.
We confess that we need to get the DVD when it comes out to see how they deal with the chapter of horrors that is Act 2 but trust that the "stars shine still..." even though we weren't able to stay until the end. Both The Duchess of Malfi and Volpone have plenty to say to modern times about power, corruption, greed and obsession and we're impressed both with Greenwich Theatre and the company, who are doubling up for both casts, for reviving these plays.
Volpone and The Duchess of Malfi run at Greenwich Theatre until 10 April. Performances will be filmed on 9 April and tickets are just £10 that day. Otherwise, £15.50-18. You can now buy The School for Scandal and Doctor Faustus from Stage on Screen.