Review: The Duchess of Malfi

Physical aspects of a new theatre both add to and detract from a convincingly chilling tale of sororicide, attests Liz Schafer

January 16, 2014

Source: Hugo Glendinning

Vulnerable: stripping the Duchess (Gemma Arterton) of her power is played out in painful closeup

The Duchess of Malfi
By John Webster
Starring Gemma Arterton
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe
Until 16 February 2014

Is it entertainment/high art/deliciously Jacobean to have a ringside seat at a realistic enactment of a woman being executed?

The central act of The Duchess of Malfi is the torture and execution of a young widow who chooses to ignore the injunctions of her brothers against her marrying again. Webster details the punishment of the Duchess with excruciating precision. Many Duchesses have successfully resisted the woman-as-victim option, making her heroic, a woman who defies patriarchy even though she knows she will eventually be punished. Nonetheless, there is no getting round the fact that Act 4 is dedicated to displaying the psychological torture of a woman by totalitarian despots. The poetry may be stunning, but there is something of a slow-motion snuff movie about it all.

In Dominic Dromgoole’s clear, cogent and completely disconcerting production, which opens the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Gemma Arterton’s Duchess, with her “youth and a little beauty”, is desperately vulnerable in a world controlled by her appalling brothers and where her class status offers no protection against men’s insane violence. However, this Duchess is not only hemmed in, imprisoned and finally annihilated by her barmy brothers, she is also imprisoned, caged in, by the audience. The physical dimensions of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse – which the programme calls “a reimagining of an archetypal Jacobean playhouse” – ensure that the process of stripping the Duchess of her power, her family and finally her life is played out in painful closeup. As Arterton’s Duchess kneels down with great dignity to be strangled, she is only a couple of feet away from the front row of the audience.

Is it entertainment/high art/deliciously Jacobean to have a ringside seat at a realistic enactment of a woman being executed? But the front row are let off the hook by the historicity of it all. The dying Duchess may be reduced to wearing a plain, timeless shift, but earlier she’s been togged out in to-die-for farthingales. The costumes, the musicians and the smell of the candles all reassure the audience that this story of honour killing, incest and domestic violence among the rich and famous is not about the here and now. That’s a relief.

The men of violence, the Duchess’ brothers the Duke Ferdinand (David Dawson) and the corrupt Cardinal (James Garnon), are utterly chilling. The arc of Ferdinand’s deterioration from power-mad tyrant into dying lycanthrope is beautifully described and carefully paced, and the moment when he bids his sister farewell with a passionate kiss on the mouth is stomach-churning. Meanwhile, the Cardinal lurks: cool, calm, calculating and, in public, disturbingly reasonable. The brothers’ henchman, Bosola, is played by Sean Gilder as a surprisingly sympathetic mass murderer, driven to contract killing by his poverty and completely out of his depth among the lies and lunacy of the Aragonian brethren. Even the completely unheroic Antonio (Alex Waldmann) is more human and interesting than usual.

But while the strength of the production lies in how well the ensemble work together in this bejewelled miniature playhouse, the stage can get very crowded and it is hard not to wonder whether the really big public playhouse plays will flourish in this rarefied space. Cymbeline, for example, was written for a more intimate stage, so there must be a way to do the crowded final scene, but could you put on Henry VI with its big battles?

The bijou dimensions – it seats 340 – of the playhouse offer audiences a challenging mix of intimacy and distance. While the privileged audience at the front of the stage are seeing almost the entire dramatis personae die in pornographic closeup, the gallery are craning their necks trying to see what the hell is going on. The flutter of an eyelash can convey subtext to the audience around the stage, but when the Duchess’ husband, Antonio, puts on a hat (as Webster’s text demands), his face is completely lost to the gallery.

Modern audiences, even those accustomed to the challenge of the Globe’s pillars blocking out large chunks of the action, like, and indeed expect, to see what is happening. People don’t listen to the radio as much as they used to, let alone to sermons lasting hours. So will the gallery be happy to sit back and simply listen when they know another part of the audience can see what’s going on? Will gallery audiences be philosophical about having access to only three-quarters of the playing space?

There are, however, some compensations available to the gallery. The wooden stage floor becomes a striking backdrop when littered with ungainly sprawling corpses. The candlelight and the shadows, which create a proto-Gothic horror atmosphere, are extraordinary from above, even if the hoisting and lowering of the candelabra is distractingly entertaining. But for those peering down from the not terribly high but somehow extremely vertiginous balcony, watching the action being played out in this playhouse is a lesson in exclusion. If you are sitting, or perching, in the Sam Wanamaker gallery, you really know you are not of the elite.

This seems to sit slightly oddly with Wanamaker’s commitment to anti-elitist politics, which got him blacklisted in 1950s America. But the audience members who are privileged to experience the Duchess dying almost in their laps also have a tough time. From the gallery they could be seen craning their necks, trying to face front, fighting the fact that their angled seats were making their bodies face away from the stage. Enterprising osteopaths should consider advertising in the Globe programmes.

The new playhouse’s capacity to work in total darkness offers real bonuses with Webster’s play. A particularly memorable moment occurs when Ferdinand demands darkness in order to offer his hand to his sister in reconciliation but – in the darkness – gives her a dead man’s severed hand instead. To oblige her brother, the Duchess commands “Take hence the lights” and the deep, deep darkness after the candles are carried out is uncanny. The voices of Ferdinand and the Duchess drift up from the void and, as the Duchess begins to realise that what she thinks is her brother’s cold hand is not connected to his body, because Ferdinand’s voice is moving away from her, the audience are also tracking his voice, trying to work out where he is in the dizzying dark.

Less satisfactory is the moment when Ferdinand uses waxworks to convince the Duchess that Antonio and their eldest son are dead. The waxwork representation of their corpses is set upstage, behind serried ranks of votive candles. In the flickering light it is hard to discern exactly what is on display, but in so intimate a space it’s hard not to ask why this passionate, impulsive Duchess, standing so close to the corpses of her loved ones, doesn’t reach out to them, and discover the deception.

The sometimes confrontational intimacy of the playhouse may be one reason why this Duchess of Malfi generated a lot of laughs. Waxworks, a dead man’s hand, a reviving corpse, a poisonous book, lycanthropy and a pile of corpses – some aspects of The Duchess are always going to seem borderline Hammer House of Horror. But although some of the laughter arose from embarrassment and shock, laughter is itself under scrutiny in this play. When the despot Duke Ferdinand insists his courtiers should laugh only when he does, the whole subject of when we laugh, and why, becomes uncomfortably self-conscious.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is an exciting new theatre that will pose many questions. How many performers can you actually get on that tiny, exquisitely crafted stage? Do modern audiences really want to sit that close to sword fights/passionate embraces/designer violence? Do they want to sit shoulder to shoulder with a lutenist? Or might the physical experience of seeing a play at the new playhouse inspire interest in a less-mediated performance for digital natives? But what a treat to be able to set off to the Globe without having to check the weather forecast, get out the thermals, stock up on sun block or dig out the Driza-Bone.

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