The Duchess of Malfi Makes The Blood Run Cold At Almeida Theatre
John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, like most Jacobean revenge tragedies, ends with a heap of dead bodies. Before, we witness all kinds of horrific goings-on including strangling, stabbing and poisoning, an amputated hand and madness. With its macabre depiction of moral decay, it’s a horror show. Yet despite some powerful moments, there is something curiously cold-blooded about this new Almeida production.
At the heart of the tragedy is the young widowed Duchess of Malfi, who defies her two brothers’ strictures by secretly marrying again, and even worse, to a man beneath her social status, her steward Antonio. When their spy Bosola finds out she is with child, the brothers order a terrible punishment, but discover that retribution is a two-edged sword. The play is not just about men trying to control women, but female sexuality itself.
Rebecca Frecknall’s modern-dress version removes the play from its courtly and religious context. It also plays down the melodramatic and grotesque elements of the play in favour of a cool dissection of class and gender power structures, though ultimately it fails to stir the emotions deeply.
The idea of having the murdered women continue to move on stage like ghosts haunting their male assailants works well. But although inventive, the production is over-stylised, with scene titles, slow-motion sequences, black blood, continual background music and use of microphones.
Chloe Lamford’s museum-like design of glass cases within which props are stored emphasises the way women are regarded as display exhibits, but the use of a large glass-walled box that looks strangely like a changing room cum prison cell has a distancing effect, sealing off the action.
Lydia Wilson gives a strong performance as the free-spirited, barefoot Duchess who refuses to be boxed up, and her scenes with Khalid Abdalla’s gentle Antonio have an intimate tenderness. Jack Riddiford plays the Duchess’s incestuous twin Ferdinand who cannot control his feelings as his guilt slides into lycanthropy, contrasted with his ruthlessly calculating brother the Cardinal (Michael Marcus). And Leo Bill is the hired assassin Bosola, an ambivalent malcontent who becomes a scourge in a corrupt society.
The Duchess of Malfi, Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, N1 1TA. Tickets £10-£42.50, until 25 January 2020.
Last Updated 13 December 2019