This engaging production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi makes a fitting curtain call for the Galleon Theatre Company and the Greenwich Playhouse who are facing an unceremonious kicking-out from their current premises by grasping landlords.
Webster’s play is one of a wave of revenge tragedies currently on stage in London. In it the widowed Duchess (Alice de Sousa) is a good woman misused by her brothers Prince Ferdinand (Robin Holden) and the Cardinal (Bruce Jamieson). They have plan to keep her from remarrying for their own reputations and selfish ends. But the Duchess defies them and marries commoner Antonio (Darren Stamford) in secret. Ferdinand hires intelligencer Bosola (Damian Quinn) to keep an eye and when she and Antonio are found out, what results is a murderous trail of treachery, sex, and violence.
Bruce Jamieson’s production is sparse in its design with nothing but a few red curtains, some makeshft furniture and some gaudy religious icons. The production’s punch is delivered in ways other than the visual. The cast as a whole is on good form, right down to the supporting roles. De Sousa’s strong willed and enduring Duchess, is accompanied by a wonderfully tender Emma Grace Arend as Cariloa. Also, Holden’s Ferdinand, played with a ferocious and maniacal spite, provides great support to Jamieson’s brutal and domineering Cardinal. There is also a great rapport between the various cliques while Quinn’s Bosola connects them all, imbuing this marvellously enigmatic character with an unexpected likeablity.
Jamieson’s modern-dress production gives Webster’s text breathing space. There is a suggestion, via the cast’s mostly black and white attire, of modern day world of organised crime. But despite the stilettos, and mohair sweaters, a contemporary setting is never forced upon the play.
Jamieson also doesn’t shy away from the violence of the play, nor from its tense sense of the sexual. But it’s never overdone or gratuitous. Even when the saucy Julia, coolly played by Tanya Winsor, sensuously tongues the image of Christ on the crucifix to seal her bond of silence for the Cardinal’s indulgence, it feels unnervingly organic despite the outrageousness blasphemy.
The use of music, directed by by Robert Gooch, with Alan Duthie consulting, is excellent, bringing a filmic quality to the production – the music acting as a sound track to the action. It’s interesting to see this used in theatre, but the choice of music successfully adds to the atmosphere, bringing shape to an otherwise sparsely designed production, bringing a suitable film noir bleakness to proceedings while not impeding the verse. (This is not entirely true of the klaxon employed at the start of the play, nor of the bursts of heavy metal during Fredinand’s madness scene).
There are other moments where things fall flat. When the ensemble play the Cardinal’s henchmen they are steely and ominously ever present. But when they later play the Doctor’s keepers this subtly is lost and they become overtly grotesque. But none the less, the company do a good job of presenting of Webster’s messy, murky play in such a small space. The production demonstrates the skill and ingenuity that has driven the company for so long. The choice of The Duchess of Malfi is a potent one. Not withstanding the sadness of such a situation, it makes for a most memorable last hurrah. Here’s hoping they find a new home soon.