John Webster’s 1614 revenge tragedy is, frankly, fun. Well, not entirely. It’s a tragedy, it’s filled with gory violence, themes of misogyny and abuse, and it adeptly explores the politics of marriage in the seventeenth century. But it also has a Duke who thinks he’s a wolf, murder, a finale rivalling the bloodshed in the final scene of Hamlet – and, under Laura Wright and Natasha Rickman’s direction, plenty of jazzy transition sequences and trippy lighting. Through clever cinematography designed by Stuart Read, Creation Theatre’s Zoom-production of The Duchess of Malfi achieves a fun, campy tone while still respecting the reality of violence at the play’s centre.
Like most Jacobean revenge tragedies, the plot here is action-packed even though Wright and Rickman have cleverly abridged the text to 1 hour and 45 minutes. The witty, kind and noble Duchess refuses to follow her brothers – the corrupt and sinister Cardinal and Duke’s – requests (demands) not to remarry. Instead, the Duchess falls in love with Antonio her steward and they elope. The couple enjoys a secret married life but are dogged by Bosola, who has been hired by the Duke Ferdinand to spy on the Duchess. In the winding and dizzying plot that follows across multiple time-jumps, the Duchess is murdered, the Duke falls to lycanthropian guilt-ridden madness, and Bosola, the Cardinal and Antonio each set out for revenge. In the end, the men end up killing each other through their own moral mistakes and cases of mistaken identity. Whew.
It’s a complicated but classic Jacobean tragedy, here wrapped in a fun psychedelic 1970s vibe, complete with Bond-esque multi-frame cinematography and an overall tip-of-the-hat to the thriller-spy genre. The Zoom platform allows for a seamless blend of film and theatre, creating a virtual set comprised of filters that make it seem that the actors are in the same room without having to act within the confines of video-chat frames. The split-screens and technicolour visual palettes reminiscent of Hitchcock, Bond, and similar spy thrillers bring these elements together pretty seamlessly.
Acting for Zoom is not easy, and the realism that Zoom often easily sets up could have been a real struggle against the melodrama of the story. Yet the Duchess (Annabelle Terry) in her pink paisley silk headband and blue eyeshadow commands every scene and walks an impressive line between camp and realism without making it feel cringey. And fortunately, her murder is staged with her subjectivity at the centre, rather than following the Hitchcock style of focusing on limp limbs and objectified bodies. Antonio (Kofi Dennis) is played with charming and charismatic earnestness, and there are many fun montages of him living the married life with utter joy that genuinely won me over. Dennis and Terry bring an excellently playful chemistry to the Duchess and Antonio’s relationship which makes them all the more endearing and sympathetic. Bosola (Graeme Rose) leans into the villain role with a characteristically sinister moustache and leather jacket and mild cockney accent – a cliché which here again supports the camp. Ferdinand’s (Dharmesh Patel) wolf-glove made of forks and knives for claws are a fun over-the-top touch underlining the character’s madness. They all bring great attention to Webster’s poetic lines without making them feel like pure recitations of tweetable phrases.
As I’ve experienced with other Zoom-based theatre during the pandemic, Zoom sometimes comes up short or doesn’t do the story justice in creating a sense of place. Sadly here this remained true: in the final act filled with sneaking and lurking in other people’s rooms it sometimes became confusing as to who is entering and exiting rooms, or hiding out from one another and where. In a plot with revenge upon revenge and murder upon murder the frenzy of the final scenes felt confusing as well as chaotic. Nonetheless, it was also exciting to see how Zoom can genuinely become a form of scenography and cinematography that supports the actors’ peformances. The clever tricks and techniques all worked together really well, rather than feeling like an excuse to play with green screens. Although that kind of experimental fun is definitely also warranted, it was refreshing to see Zoom blend into the production rather than foreground it.
Creation Theatre’s The Duchess of Malfi is performed live online until 27th March. More information here.