The Duchess of Malfi

Director Rachel Bagshaw has created a vibrant and vivid production of John Webster’s tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre that revels in the candlelight setting and intimacy of the venue that is reminiscent of the Blackfriars’s Theatre where the play was first performed in 1614.

Grim, but glorious, balancing light with dark and the humorous with the sinister

The high energy, impassioned performances and vengeful plot, intertwined with romance and the plight of a strong-willed woman dealing with the arrogant determination and wrath of her brothers, drives this moving play with timeless themes and contemporary battles. A gory scene and an ending that sees the stage strewn with corpses, places it in the tradition of the macabre and fateful tragedies of Shakespeare. It’s grim, but glorious, balancing light with dark and the humorous with the sinister.

Ti Green’s set provides a simple yet stately backdrop to her colourful array of costumes matched to the character that give the suggestion of period yet with a modern twist. Her choice of palette plays into the themes of light and dark that permeate the script. Olivier Huband as Antonio, steward, suitor and lover to the Duchess, gently moves around in a white suit uttering poetic charm in marked contrast to the darkly-robed Oliver Johnstone whose Ferdinand becomes more bitter and venomous as his campaign to destroy his sister progresses. Jamie Ballard, the other brother and Cardinal, cannot be missed in the brilliant red robes that denote his office and serve to highlight the hypocrisy in which he is steeped. In similar vein, Arthur Hughes, gives a commanding performance as the darkly costumed Bosola, a man desperately trying to be a reformed character from his criminal past, but who finds the lure of unscrupulous behaviour too inviting not to become embroiled in the macabre machinations of Ferdinand and ultimately murder.

Francesca Mills scores a triumph in the central role. Her Duchess, in predominantly shining cream brocade costumes, is filled with energy, much of it sexual, and she will have no truck with the propriety imposed by her brothers. She needs a man and Antonio, despite his lower status, is at hand. What others regard as unthinkable, she sees as a woman’s right and ignores the ban on marriage imposed by her brothers, wasting no time in producing a series of children; births that mark the passage of time. Throughout she has her dutiful woman-in- waiting, Cariola, to turn to and Shazia Nicholls plays her faithfully, while creating some of the more playful and lighthearted scenes.

The whole production is given a further lift by the use of creative captioning throughout, ingeniously devised by Sarah Readman.The words appear across the entire set and at times create frantic displays that reflect the action onstage. It works well with Anna Clock’s jazzy musical compositions for a four-piece ensemble, unlike the attempts early on to incorporate modern references into the text that sound completely out of place and fall flat.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

Ten years after opening the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2014, John Webster’s seminal revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, returns to London’s only indoor candlelit theatre from February 2024.

A forbidden marriage. A hidden family. A dangerous web of secrets and lies.

The recently widowed Duchess falls in love with her steward, Antonio. Her brothers, eager to keep her under their control, warn her not to remarry. But some things are worth fighting – and lying – for…

In a rigid, male-dominated world, how far does a woman have to go to protect those she loves the most? And what desperate measures will the men in her life take to control her story?

Award-winning Director Rachel Bagshaw (Midnight Movie, Royal Court) makes her Globe directorial debut with this ground-breaking anniversary production of Webster’s violent tale of misogyny and deceit.

‘I account this world a tedious theatre, For I do play a part in’t ‘gainst my will.’

– Act IV, scene 1

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