The Duchess of Malfi

For a minute, I thought I’d walked into a puppet theatre version of The Duchess of Malfi. UCLU Runaground have decided to suggest a general royal setting with a small wooden palace lurking in the background. It looks faintly ridiculous and serves no purpose - fairly representative of the production as a whole. Runaground haven’t done themselves any favours by trying to fit a big production into a tiny space. There’s some fine acting here, but it all becomes a bit comical with costumes that look like they were stolen from a primary school play, swoopy video-game sound effects and extremely poor staging. It isn’t quite the intended effect, but this cramped, over the top production is occasionally pretty amusing.

Perhaps Runaground should have considered playing this as a comedy—the very capable cast are certainly already embracing the occasional laughs they’re getting.

While Runaground are certainly not at fault for the performance space they’ve got, they’ve failed to adapt to it and the show suffers for it. It’s hard to take this grand, romantic epic about love and honour seriously when someone dramatically dies on an audience member’s shoes. While the cast are committed and talented actors, their performances are too outsized for this intimate space. There’s a lot of screaming, writhing and gnashing of teeth. The period dress is badly executed (bare female arms? In the 16th century?) and for some reason the villain always enters to a swishing sound effect, as though a giant bat is swooping down on us. Whenever he soliloquizes, we’re treated to the sound of crows cawing.

Webster’s limping attempt at a macabre play is a challenge to perform in the first place — the long, dragging plot features plenty of sex, death, madness, incest and lycanthropy (yes, lycanthropy, why not?). It would be difficult to keep even the most massive, stately production from becoming unintentionally hilarious, but at this close range the laughs are inevitable. In the final ten minutes, the anguish and violence escalate to the point of hilarity.

Perhaps Runaground should have considered playing this as a comedy—the very capable cast are certainly already embracing the occasional laughs they’re getting. In such a small space, their knowing asides to the audience also work beautifully as comedy. At the very least, this production would benefit from stripping down to a more intimate, minimal approach. 

Reviews by Lauren Moreau


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The Blurb

'She stains the time past, lights the time to come'. UCLU Runaground presents a condensed, claustrophobic version of Webster's greatest Jacobean tragedy. A poetic triumph, observe the Duchess's dignity and resolve as she battles for her freedom in the face of two calculating brothers set on revenge. Bloody, visceral and shrouded in darkness, boundaries are blurred between good and bad, heaven and hell. Webster questions how easy it really is to discern our friends from our enemies. In the world of Malfi, all are marked for death. Two questions remain: how and when?

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