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The Duchess of Malfi

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
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The magical darkness and light world of a 1930s circus seems a fitting place to set John Webster’s delicious tale of ambition, sex, regret and revenge. Yet sadly, Vaulting Ambitions’ bold decision to combine the two worlds seems misguided in the cold light of the New Players Theatre.

The play focuses on the Duchess (Tilly Middleton) who, seeking love and companionship, takes Antonio (Peter Lloyd) as her husband. But because he is below her in status their union must stay a court secret. Three children later things start to take a turn for the dark and the vow with which their marriage is consecrated – “this sacred gordian, which let violence. Never untwine” – becomes savagely ironic as her brothers Ferdinand (Alex Humes) and the Cardinal (Andrew Piper) come to the fore.

The production fails in the main because the world of the circus and the world of the play are never combined effectively. The use of hula–hoop and silks are impressive but the inclusion is ad hoc, irrelevant and ultimately distracting. This could be because none of the principals are circus performers or because the intended circus trick metaphors are far too esoteric for any audience to comprehend.

Far more distracting however, is director Dan Horrigan’s baffling decision to employ a stage hand, who looks like he’s just walked off the set of Skins, to control the moving spotlight. His numerous appearances are completely discordant from those of the rest of the cast, who all look very convincing in their 1930s circus attire.

The emotional stakes, always fairly high in classical tragedy, are here never raised to their intended fever pitch. Indeed all the classical goodies – incest, power, sex, greed and ambition – are for the most part shackled. The abundant sexuality, especially prevalent in Ferdinand and Antonio’s relationship, is barely alluded to in the first half. And in the second it is reduced to a crude dumb show involving a strap-on and some smoked German sausage – farcical for all the wrong reasons.

There are strong performances from Middleton, who excels in the title role, her apparent ambivalence towards her own death clashing beautifully with her agony at losing her son. Andrew Piper’s Alan Rickman-esque Cardinal is also noteworthy and successfully evokes a rather charming shade of evil. The other standout is designer J William Davis’ beautifully conceived big top, which deserves a better show to fill it.

- Ed Strictland


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