'Luminous' Gemma Arterton 'dazzles' in new candlelit venue
Opening the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Dominic Dromgoole's production of The Duchess of Malfi shines bright, for most
John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi... is perfect: a dark, psychological shocker to be glimpsed in flickering light... at the still, sickly centre of the play, Gemma Arterton's pellucid Duchess, serenely Oriental, a gorgeous doll with sensuality to burn. Dominic Dromgoole's production... facilitates an ease of speaking so that we hear Webster's sinuous and glittering verse like never before. Granted, Arterton may not pack the tragic punch of Helen Mirren or Eve Best in this role, but I've never experienced her good-hearted innocence beset by warped treatment so well. The brothers are superbly cast, James Garnon's understated smarminess as the Cardinal perfectly matched to the space while David Dawson's ferocious, skewed Ferdinand is daringly stymied with emotional stutters.
(The Duchess) is one of the great female roles in the canon and Gemma Arterton brings to it beauty, determination and a sense of moral goodness... But, good as Arterton is, it is David Dawson as Ferdinand who really steals the show... James Garnon plays his brother, the Cardinal, with a dry, sardonic malevolence, Sean Gilder lends Bosola... an unusual penitence and there is an outstanding supporting performance from Denise Gough as the Cardinal's wittily lascivious mistress...But the success of the evening lies in the fact that Webster's play and this exciting new space make a perfect fit.
(Gemma Arterton) speaks Webster's blank verse with seductive ease. We are so close to her open flirting that we feel like voyeurs... It takes a while to get used to the candle-only lighting, but it becomes virtually a character in the play... James Garnon, as the smoothly psychotic Cardinal, or Paul Rider as the courtier Delio, make a big impact by not working too hard... So this difficult masterpiece slips down remarkably smoothly. Granted, once the Duchess is strangled (nastily), Webster has left us with a fifth act that overstays its welcome, and it's hard to care too much about the pile of bodies at the end. Or at least it is until the mournful, beautiful closing jig that unites all the characters, dead and alive.
With its morbid imagery, perverted desires and skulking intriguers, Webster's tragedy is well-chosen to show-case the Wanamaker's aptitude for conjuring up the shadowy and the shuddering... The luminous Gemma Arterton beautifully captures the multi-faceted quality of the Duchess... David Dawson is electrifying as her twin brother Ferdinand... In the past, I have found it hard to take seriously the scenes in which he torments her with a dead hand and with waxworks of her supposedly murdered husband and son. But here, thanks to Dawson's transfixing performance and the prevailing creepiness of ambience (the first of those episodes is performed in pitch darkness), I found them psychologically and socially persuasive.
It is less than two years since Eve Best gave a superb performance as the persecuted heroine in a cracking production by Jamie Lloyd at the Old Vic. This staging seems underpowered in comparison... The big problem with the show is that even in this intimate space the former Bond girl Gemma Arterton makes so little impression as the Duchess... There is little hint of a sexual spark in her relationship with Antonio... Happily there is more striking work elsewhere. David Dawson is thrillingly sinister and unwholesome as her lank-haired twin brother Ferdinand... James Garnon is splendidly corrupt as the devious cardinal and Sean Gilder powerfully captures the mixture of villainy and conscience of the malcontent Bosola. But the production too often fails to do full justice to the chilling thrills and dark poetry of this cruel, unsettling drama.
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