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Archive: The Duchess of Malfi

For the archive, we have filed our reviews of several productions of The Duchess of Malfi on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or browse

RSC 2000 - NT 2003 - Old Vic 2012 - Almeida 2019

The Duchess of Malfi
Barbican Theatre      2000

Penned by John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi was first staged in 1614, a typical Jacobean tragedy in that there is a welter of characters, each of whom get at least one stab (forgive the pun) in a labyrinthine soap-opera plot to ham it up in the spotlight before they all meet a gruesome end in a thunderous climax.

Briefly, it's the tale of a duchess who steers her realm into security at a terrible price, namely having to marry her loved one and bear his children in secret.

Meanwhile she is fending off the ultimately fatal political and sexual jealousies of her twin brother Ferdinand in cahoots with elder sibling, the Cardinal, and, really, just about everyone else at some point or other.

Anyway, as a play it is a notable one that is worth seeing if only for the strong plot built around one of the more enduring female characters from a pivotal period in English theatre.

Sadly, this is the very area in which this otherwise slick production, from the Royal Shakespeare Company, fails - and in the process very nearly drags down the entire show.

Some years ago I saw Juliet Stevenson do the Duchess in the West End. An extraordinarily busy woman at the time, she still found the energy to take the part by the horns in order to ensure she created a role to be remembered by.

Success came her way - and the effect was pure dynamite as Stevenson hit on every level of the character yet never ran away from the play itself or hogged the stage at the expense of her co-players. Most importantly, she had a director she could trust.

At the Barbican, however, you'll find a director who either hasn't a clue or else who cannot be bothered to make the effort, and although newcomer Aisling O'Sullivan makes a brave showing as the Duchess, all focus is lost.

Director Gale Edwards lets the cast run around like headless chickens, desperately trying to find some semblance of motive. As a result, the densely structured story starts to fragment and all we are left with is a sequence of undeniably powerful but dramatically inconsequent scenes.

Well, perhaps I'm being a little harsh. If one discards the concept of this being the Duchess's play, then Tom Mannion's Bosola has clearly escaped the miasma and this is his play.

Indeed, there are those who would say that it was always intended to be Bosola's play. The man who is brought by Duke Ferdinand as a hatchetman to help keep watch on things finds his own conscience gradually doing a U-turn when he becomes embroiled in the sorry disintegration of the Duchess's precarious world.

I gather that Mannion, an actor of great presence, was brought in only two weeks previous to the opening to replace an actor who had fallen ill. Either way, he combines acid wit with a violent sense of honour to save the play.

Of great help is the set design that is all shadows and chrome, brimming with a post-industrial simplicity that lends a sinister, modern backdrop to the proceedings.

Its flexibility is particularly effective when a stacked wall of taunting madmen is created and there is real shock when a wall slides away to reveal the horror of strung-up butchered bodies.

Still, you could always wait until another, better revival pops up.

Nick Awde


The Duchess of Malfi
Lyttelton Theatre      Spring 2003

John Webster's 1613 tragedy is generally considered one of the major non-Shakespearean works of the period, but it is better known (and admired) in the classroom than the theatre.

This may partly explain why director Phyllida Lloyd has done so very many things wrong in this moribund National Theatre production.

The title character is a young widow who secretly marries her honourable but low-born steward, much to the anger of her two brothers, a corrupt Cardinal and a jealous, possibly incestuous Duke.

Using a household spy for most of their dirty work, they set in motion a series of events that end with virtually the entire cast lying dead by the final scene.

In common with many of the period, the play can be static and talky at times, a problem Lloyd not only does not conquer, but one which she exacerbates through clumsy staging.

Repeatedly two characters having an intimate conversation stand at opposite ends of the stage, facing the audience and not each other. Whenever there are 3 or 4 people in a scene, they line up in a row and speechify rather than forming any natural grouping.

Offstage actors sit on a set of bleachers that line the rear of the stage, adding to the sense of artificial groupings and non-movement, and the only way Lloyd and her designers could think of to stress the tragic tone seems to have been to play the whole thing in near-darkness..

The play is done in modern dress, with Lloyd falling into every trap that overdone device holds. Characters repeatedly brandish and fire guns while their lines specify swords.

Microphones are used for public scenes, intercoms for what should be private conversations, video projections for no reason at all.

A key scene, in which the Duchess is tortured by being thrown among raving lunatics, is replaced by a flashy and noisy video montage that is both incomprehensible and ineffective, while another important plot moment involving an accidental killing is so bungled that no one who has not read the play could possibly catch the irony.

The modern dress reduces the Duke to a slimy Mafia boss and the spy to a crude thug, while the all-important differences in class and riches, on which the whole plot hangs, are erased by dressing everyone the same.

What should be a tense moment when the brothers almost capture the Duchess's husband is lowered to the level of French farce by having him hide under the bed, and the Duke's eventual descent into madness merely generates titters in the audience.

Amidst all this clumsiness and lifelessness, usually impressive Janet McTeer is able (or allowed) to do very little with the Duchess beyond posing in some elegant gowns.

Only near the end, in scenes of despair and near-madness, can she inspire any kind of empathy, entering into Fiona Shaw territory, but with a greater sense of warmth and pain than Shaw would evoke.

Lorcan Cranitch finds some complexity in the slimy spy Bosola, hinting at the possibility he might have become a better man in better circumstances, but neither Will Keen's twitchy Duke nor Ray Stevenson's phoned-in Cardinal have any reality.

Gerald Berkowitz

The Duchess of Malfi
Old Vic Theatre     Spring 2012

Most regular theatregoers will have heard of The Duchess of Malfi and know that it was written somewhere around Shakespeare's time (1613, actually). 

Some might be able to identify John Webster (rather than Fletcher or Beaumont or Ford or Massinger or Middleton or Marston) as the author, and a few might be able to distinguish its convoluted plot from the convoluted plots of other Jacobean tragedies. 

But, like many other post-Shakespearean dramas, this remains more familiar to English professors than playgoers, and despite a strong central performance Jamie Lloyd's new production for the Old Vic can't do much to bring it alive. 

To strip the plot down to its raw outline, the title character secretly marries her steward, an admirable man in all but his low birth, and her outraged brothers set out to punish her, resulting in at least nine deaths (one more than in Hamlet). 

Lloyd's production opens with a stately dance, and the whole evening maintains too measured a pace. Too many in the cast recite their lines rather than speaking them with any naturalness, adding to the sense of slowness and deadness, an impression particularly felt when the Duchess herself dies (I'm not giving anything away there) two-thirds of the way through the play, leaving all the less interesting characters to plod on to the end. 

The one outstanding performance, and ultimately the one reason to see this (unless you're a postgraduate student ticking off your must-see-sometime list), is Eve Best's portrayal of the Duchess. Almost alone in the large cast she makes us believe that there's a real person behind all the blank verse, a woman happily in love and possessing the character and strength to triumph over her persecutors just by taking everything they can throw at her. 

Best also stands out by speaking the verse naturally and conversationally, sounding like a real live human being and not a rote reciter. While this sometimes makes her seem to inhabit a different reality from everyone else, it does contribute to our ability to believe in and sympathise with the woman (not to mention keeping us awake). 

Mark Bonnar brings some energy to the assistant baddy Bosola, but not enough to match Best, and not enough to hold the stage and our interest when the play's focus abruptly shifts after the Duchess's death to his late-in-the-game moral compunctions. Finbar Lynch metaphorically twirls his moustachios in melodramatic villainy as the hypocritical Cardinal, but nobody else leaves much of an impression at all.

Gerald Berkowitz

The Duchess Of Malfi
Almeida Theatre    Winter 2019-2020

John Webster's 1614 drama is one of those Shakespearean-era plays better known to postgraduate students in literature than the theatregoing public.

It has a strong female character with a strikingly modern sensibility, but it poses problems to a director and actors that this production, despite some virtues, doesn't quite conquer.

The plot is simple. The title character marries a commoner, much to the outrage of her two brothers, a Duke and a Cardinal, who set out to torture and destroy her. That achieved, they and just about everyone else in the play turn against each other, leaving the final stage tableau as covered in dead bodies as Hamlet.

The major attraction of the play is the character of the Duchess, a woman who knows what she wants, goes out and gets it, and then forcefully defends her right to self-determination.

Lydia Wilson and director Rebecca Frecknall have chosen not to invest her with too much plaster-saint majesty, but rather to open with a charming and believable image of a young woman in love, and let the character only discover her strength as she discovers that she can withstand the suffering her brothers impose on her.

This more dynamic and human characterisation is one of the production's strengths, but it means that when spoiler alert the Duchess dies, an enormous amount of the play's focus and energy dissipates.

A structural problem the play presents to modern sensibilities is that the Duchess's death comes about two-thirds of the way through, and the play has to linger on for almost an hour without her. (Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences evidently had a different sense of anticlimax from ours c.f. the last act of The Merchant Of Venice.)

Some directors face this problem by heavy cutting that races through the last act, contributing to Webster's unfair reputation as just one baroque murder after another.

Rebecca Frecknall just plods through it, trying to keep the image of the Duchess alive by keeping Lydia Wilson onstage, doubling in a couple of minor roles. But it is the character, and not the actress, that is missed, and we simply can't care as much for the others as we did for her.

Director Frecknall and costume designer Nicky Gillibrand compound this problem with a plain business-suit modern dress design that makes all the men look pretty much alike. Even if you don't actually have trouble remembering who's who, you are given very little assistance in developing any attitude toward them.

(The Cardinal, for example, is a total hypocrite with a mistress, but when the actor doesn't wear anything clerical, not even a cross, some of the irony is lost.)

The audience is further distanced from the characters by a stage design by Chloe Lamford that puts much of the action behind a glass wall, with voices necessarily amplified.

The all-but-disembodied voices become separated from the people we see, giving the effect of a radio play being mimed to. One key scene is played in total darkness with amplified voices and, while I assume it's spoken live I could not swear it wasn't prerecorded.

The only character other than the Duchess that invites some identification and sympathy is the assistant-baddie Bosola, who does the brothers' dirty work for them.

Building on indications in the text that he was an essentially good man embittered by official neglect and abuse, Leo Bill finds all the opportunities to show us the man wrestling with a moral sense that doesn't like what he's doing but can't stop him from doing it.

If anything carries the staggering last hour of the play, it is his character and performance. But this Duchess Of Malfi remains heavy going, with only the glimpses of humanity in the two leading performances to keep it going.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Reviews of  The Duchess Of Malfi - RSC at Barbican Theatre 2000; National Theatre 2003; Old Vic 2012; Almeida 2019

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