Rebecca Frecknall’s production of the The Duchess of Malfi begins with ideas of sickness. Bosola (Leo Bill) – an ex-convict hanging around the court of Malfi waiting to receive recompense for his services as a hired murderer – speaks to the audience, in a speech that’s been moved to the opening of the play, laying out the production’s thematic concerns.
“though we bear diseases […] And though continually we bear about us / A rotten and dead body, we delight / To hide it in rich tissue; all our fear – / Nay all our terror – is, lest our physician / Should put us in the ground, to be made sweet.”
Disease crops up in almost every major speech in Duchess of Malfi. It’s this thing – these things (“apoplexy, catarrh, cough o’ the lungs”) – that rots and poisons the body from inside. There’s a real anxiety around “physic” in the play. As in Bosola’s speech, disease calls for physicians or doctors, which in early seventeenth-century Europe meant purging, bloodletting, balancing the humours: treatments that were half-science, half-superstition.
The best bits of the production draw this out. Chloe Lamford’s beautiful set features a big glass box, a massive vitrine or display case. Inside there’s a low bench and the back wall is tiled white. It looks like a shower room at the gym, with a hospital sterility, maybe the laboratory of a crazy horror-film Nazi scientist. Sometimes it glows blue. George Dennis’s sound is usually a low hum throughout the action; alongside the vitrine, it makes me think of the background noise that you just assume is some kind of mild machinery regulating the air flow or temperature of an aquarium or museum, until you notice that it’s been ticking or hissing for a while and that’s weird and then suddenly, between scenes, it explodes. At the side of the stage are two more vitrines, or maybe wunderkammers, cabinets of curiosities containing various props and interesting-looking things. Wunderkammers were popular amongst the princes of seventeenth-century Europe, and they’re a neat representation of a period in which magic and religion and biology, salamander skins and urine and cupping-glasses and mandragora, were fascinatingly bundled together and placed under examination. Also, they’re a reminder of one of the most famous lines in the play, the Duchess’s cry: “Why should only I / Of all the other princes of the world / Be cased up like a holy relic?”
The Duchess of Malfi is a cabinet of curiosities of a play, stuffed with bloodied handkerchiefs and waxworks and severed hands and a man who thinks he’s a wolf, and almost every line is overabundant. It’s ludicrous, but I don’t think you can ignore that. There’s a scene in it where a woman dies because she’s forced to kiss a poisoned bible – except that here, the book is replaced with a glass. This production is often beautiful, rarely mad. It’s a surprising choice of play for Frecknall, perhaps, and it doesn’t always pay off. Some elements of the production reminded me of her Three Sisters, except the characters are wearing All Saints instead of Toast or Cos, for a bit of added grunge.
If you go for vaguely timeless neutrality in costuming and props – the Duchess (Lydia Wilson) wears a mauve silk dress; most of the men wear black tie; her daughter has a large wooden spinning top; there’s a small gun – then there’s no context to explain it when someone says something joltingly weird. Dressing the characters in tasteful muted greys can’t hide the unruliness of the play. Their world is governed by a wild Jacobean logic of suspicion and superstition, but that doesn’t explain many of the directorial choices here. Sometimes voices in the glass box are amplified, sometimes muted. Sometimes characters can see into the glass box, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes people move in slow motion, inside and outside the box, sometimes they don’t. The final bloodbath is soundtracked by ‘Dido’s Lament’ from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas; it’s too recognisable not to be deliberate, but I don’t get the dramaturgical connection. It’s sad? It’s about a woman who dies? It’s Baroque? It helps pace the slo-mo? Whyyy? It’s frustrating.
Towards the end, to be fair, disease seeps into the action and it kicks off. Everyone bleeds a black liquid as they die. The women draw a tarry smear across their necks and splash it on the one of the vitrine’s panels; as the men all stab each other, it bubbles up from under the stage. It looks less like blood than black bile, the humour that causes an excess of melancholy. After her death, the Duchess appears as the one Doctor in the play, punishing Ferdinand for her murder as he goes mad. The dead women (the Duchess, her maid Cariola, Julia the Cardinal’s mistress) haunt and torture the remaining men from inside the glass box. They are granted revenge.
Wilson is excellent as the Duchess, finding her sweetness and strength without overdoing her goodness. She’s the core of the play, but it lacked something rotten and howling around her.
Duchess of Malfi is on at Almeida Theatre until 25th January 2020. More info and tickets here.