Reviews OWE & Fringe Published 26 April 2013

The Duke in Darkness

Tabard Theatre ⋄ 16th April - 11th May 2013

Means of escape.

Stewart Pringle

While Rope has coiled itself tightly around the theatre and cinema of suspense since it was first unwound in taut inches in 1929, and Gas Light continues to flicker into life whenever a group of actors want a reliably creepy mystery for long winter evenings, Patrick Hamilton’s smart 16th century psychodrama has remained in the shadows. The Duke in Darkness never recovered its reputation following short wartime runs on the West End and Broadway, where critic Lewis Nichols condemned it as an unfortunate stumbling block in the British writer’s career, the misstep that caused Hamilton to ‘stub his toe’. A slight injury to the writer of some of the most influential literature of the early 20th century, but unfortunately the first in a series that would eventually leave him hobbled, dictating his final novel from an alcoholic stupor twelve years later.

A bit of canny servicing from adaptor Orlando Wells and a truly handsome production has brought The Duke of Darkness back into the light, and revealed a sharp and ambitious play that blends the strongest elements of Rope and Gas Light with a touching story of friendship and duty set against the final bloody years of the French Wars of Religion. The Huguenot Duke of Laterraine (Michael Palmer) has been imprisoned in a tower by his Catholic enemies since the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, with only his close friend and servant Gribaud (Jamie Treacher) for company. For fifteen years he has combed his cell for a means of escape, stitching together a rope from stray fibres from his bedding and clothes, and scraping a cubbyhole behind a great chest that stands against the wall. He has feigned blindness to hoodwink his captors, but himself remains truly blind as to the fates of his fellow Protestants. When an opportunity for escape emerges, the disintegrating mental state of Gribaud threatens to dash the Duke’s hopes.

In many ways the set-up and pacing are fractionally too indebted to Hamilton’s earlier hits. The claustrophobic madness and tense silences of Gas Light, the excruciating threats of discovery which find their focus in a large wooden box of Rope. The familiarity of the school of suspense which Hamilton founded makes the play’s strongest scenes of twitchy tension, such as the Duke’s confrontation with his captors at the end of the first act, feel too well-worn to captivate, however brilliantly they are handled by director Phoebe Barran. The role of the Duke’s man Voulain is given strange and convincing depths by Jake Mann, but lead to questions and expectations that Hamilton’s rather damp resolution isn’t capable of answering.

These textual weaknesses are entirely forgivable, however, in the face of the superb performances of Barran’s cast, and the immaculately realised production design. Palmer shifts elegantly from detachment to profound vulnerability, while Treacher excels as the pitiable clerk whose association with the Duke has destroyed his life. Wells has tweaked the script to give Gribaud’s madness a more contemporary and realistic bent, as well as ensuring that the homoerotic undertones that were likely denied its original Lord Chamberlain-approved production are clearly though subtly brought to bear.

Max Dorey’s set design is remarkable in both detail and economy, the tower’s walls an intricate patterning of splintered wood and unyielding stone, and it works strikingly with Nicki Brown’s intelligent lighting. It’s a small thing, but a moment in which a fire that glows from a bucket briefly flares and dips as papers are added to it is a perfect encapsulation of the terrifically high standards of care that this production shows to Hamilton’s turbulent text.

It’s unlikely to replace Rope or Gas Light in the hearts or theatres of the UK, but this talented team have demonstrated that The Duke in Darkness is more than a historical curiosity. All it needed was a little TLC.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

The Duke in Darkness Show Info


Directed by Phoebe Barran

Written by Patrick Hamilton, a new version adapted by Orlando Wells

Link http://www.tabardtheatre.co.uk/

Running Time 2 hrs (inc 15 min interval)

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