John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is one of the English language’s best known tragedies and with the horrifying plot brought vividly to life in melodic poetry how can it not be.
A love story which twists into macabre violence and ends in pools of blood it tells the dark tale of the titular Duchess who, widowed young, is forbidden by her brothers from marrying again so that they can be sure to keep her inheritance. The Duchess however defies her brothers and marries her steward in secret, going on to bear him three children. Their secret is finally discovered and violence ensues destroying all in its path.
Webster’s poetry is by no means easy and unfortunately in Elizabeth Freestone’s production you feel it. We're not drawn along by the music of the lines but rather pushed along by the cast as they rush through the script at fever pitch, losing much of the poetry in the process. After a wonderfully eerie, well paced first scene measured by the slow lifting of hats, the pace of the production quickens and seldom relents enough for the full horror and macabre beauty to really sink in.
There are however some highlights in this express-way production, scenes where the beautiful and the macabre are perfectly balanced; Ferdinand and the Duchess meeting in the dark and the deeply upsettling creeping madmen in straight-jackets being two of the best. Tim Steeds is a delight throughout playing Ferdinand’s “turbulent nature” with real skill.
Visually, the production is entrancing. The staging is dynamic making wonderful use of Neil Irish’s stark set which creates a hauntingly effective space using black and white tiled flooring, two storey high walls with doors and windows and minimal furnishings, all beautifully highlighted by Wayne Dowdeswell’s simple but creative lighting design.
With so many elements of this play so right it would be a shame to miss it but be advised, it's not for the faint of heart and once you're on, you can’t get off.
- Laura Norman