A production of The Duchess of Malfi was the first piece staged by Galleon Theatre as part of their residency at the Greenwich Playhouse, which began back in 1995. Now, with the theatre due to close in April, this established company are looking for a new home, but are bidding goodbye to their old one by ending as they began, with John Webster’s gruesome tale of corruption and spite.
Swansongs are best done tastefully with artistic integrity, and although they are allowed to be indulgent, they should still leave an audience wanting more. This is evidently a no-holds barred adaptation of Malfi, updated with modern dress, a cinematic soundtrack, and twisted scenes of violence and sexuality. Unfortunately, this production goes too far in its attempts to shock, with the modern touches feeling more like a molestation of Webster’s text.
The piece begins with serving-man Antonio (Darren Stamford) and his pal Delio (Alexander Neal) introducing the drama’s main players. Their introductions are underscored by an unfathomable foghorn blast, heralding the entry of each individual with as much indelicacy as a soundtrack can muster. The Duchess of Malfi (Alice de Sousa) is recently widowed, and her brothers – a corrupt Cardinal (Bruce Jamieson) and the incestuous Duke Ferdinand (Robin Holden) – are adamant that she will not remarry. Unfortunately, she marries her servant Antonio, and all hell breaks loose as Bosola (Damian Quinn), gathers intelligence for the malevolent brothers.
What troubles me about this production is that everything that is wrong with it stems directly from the portrayals of the Duchess and the Cardinal, who are also the producer and director. Sadly, De Sousa lacks the charisma to make her Malfi memorable – and the casting of Holden as her twin brother seems rather wishful given their obvious age difference.
As for director Bruce Jamieson’s playing of the Cardinal, it is a little disturbing just how many scandalous scenes he gets to partake in. There is a veritable smorgasboard of elements designed to shock and make the Machiavellian plot ‘relevant’ to a modern audience. We overhear the whipsnaps and moans of a BDSM session. The Cardinal wears tattoo sleeves and listens to heavy metal music to leave us in no doubt as to his shady character. And worst of all, Webster’s disturbing scene where the Cardinal murders his mistress with a poisoned Bible is turned into an awkwardly sleazy episode where the poor girl must lick the shaft of a crucifix-encrusted tome held over Jamieson’s crotch.
There are excellent performances from Bosola (Damian Quinn), Cariola (Emma Grace Arends), Julia (Tanya Winsor), and the Doctor (Barry Clarke). In particular, Quinn’s Bosola is evilly seductive, soliloquising to the audience with all the relish of a pantomime villain. It is doubly frustrating, then, that a talented ensemble is let down by its main players and its overall direction.
The production’s conclusion also ends somewhat bafflingly, with substantial liberties being taken with Webster’s text. Somehow, Bosola manages to avoid death in the final scuffle, and the play’s final lines are altered so that Alice de Sousa can come back on to remind us all that she is ‘Duchess of Malfi still’, despite being strangled to death. Perhaps Galleon Theatre are hoping that their ending will also be rewritten, and they will either be allowed to continue their work at Greenwich or find a suitable venue elsewhere.
It really is a huge shame that the Greenwich Playhouse must close its doors, denying future projects the chance to bloom. But this production is overripe. It is a bitter rendition of a bitter play, studded with overpowering star turns from some of the ensemble, leaving little to titillate the palate.