Duchess of Malfi

February 14, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

The Duchess of Malfi (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

It is an absolute joy to see the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse up and running. Nestled in the Globe’s belly, jutting far into the foyer, this reimagining of a Jacobean indoor theatre is beautiful and invigorating. While its relative newness isn’t entirely to its advantage at the moment (the paint work just a little too crisp, the beams a little too obviously decorative), the intimate environment and intricate machinery adds a pleasingly practical feel to a stage environment that more obviously anticipates the development of the modern theatre. Candlelit chandeliers move up and down to throw shadows of varying shapes and densities across the stage; pieces of scenery (wax figures, a shrine) are shuffled on and off from the discovery space (though surely some castors would make this look much less amateurish) and minstrels occupy a dedicated gallery space. Even the curtains and solid doors offer a wide range of options for entrances, concealments and eavesdroppings. It’s a mouthwateringly potential-filled space.

The decision to open the playhouse with a play that makes full use of the venue was a good one. In one powerful sequence, the candles were all extinguished to leave Gemma Arterton’s Duchess in absolute darkness, and her realisation that she was holding a severed hand was perhaps the more traumatic for the delay in being able to see the hand. As she screamed for light, the entrance to the central door flew open and a dazzling array of candles illuminated both the wax figures (kept in enough shadow to render ambiguous whether it was the actors or mannequins) and, distantly, the offending hand left abandoned on the main stage. The creation of intimate nighttime conversations illuminated by the handheld candelabras wielded by the speakers emphasised the atmosphere of intrigue that pervaded the play, and at a metatheatrical layer, it seemed to be the actor playing Bosola who moved around the edges of the playhouse at the end of the first scene, gazing in at the audience as he closed the shutters letting in light from outside, shutting the audience into the world of his schemes. The potential of this theatre to place lighting at the heart of theatrical interpretation and control is perhaps the most thrilling aspect of the design. I would advise anyone sitting in the upper gallery to ensure their glasses are crystal clear however, as the glare of looking through the chandeliers for the majority of the production made it very difficult to see faces.

In showing off the theatre’s tricks, however, Dominic Dromgoole’s production did at times feel like something of a museum piece, demonstrating rather than performing the space. This was most notable in the bizarre, matter-of-fact scene of the apricots, in which Arterton’s Duchess and Alex Waldmann’s Antonio appeared to be describing the pain, distress and anxiety of the Duchess’s sudden labour rather than performing it. Arterton in particular, such an excellent performer in the Globe, gave a performance too big for the space; the advantage of an intimate indoor venue is that one can rasp and whisper one’s final words after being throttled, rather than suddenly emitting crystal clear projection from the floor. Similarly, words were regularly drowned out by the (excellent, but occasionally incessant) music. If this production nailed the theatre’s potential with light, it also demonstrated that there is a great deal to be done in working with acoustics and voice.

The above provided the conditions for an evocative, atmospheric Malfi (my first) that was particularly effective in its establishment of the longing, lustful relationship between Antonio and the Duchess. In a charged wooing scene, Antonio clued in quickly to the Duchess’s innuendos, stepping gradually closer to her as they first exchanged ring, then hands, then clasped each other tightly. While the formalising of their marriage was staged in the manner of a ritual, the two kneeling before Sarah MacRae’s Cariola while lit by candles at ground level, the most affecting scenes followed in the brief glimpses of their domestic bliss, as the young couple giggled, sang  and teased one another with withheld kisses and taunts. The relative youth of the couple added a sense of play to their hushed courtship and something pathetic to their later banishment, stood in the streets with three children and nowhere to go.

Arterton’s humane, dignified Duchess, while sometimes a little artificial, brought a great deal of warmth and resilience to the role. Her crisis point came as David Dawson’s excellent Ferdinand sneaked in behind her while she gave away her marriage. Catching sight of him in her mirror, she suppressed a gasp, and then quietly and steadfastly welcomed her abuser. Her clear protection of her brother (who she repeatedly demanded kisses from, to his consternation) was clearest in her stoic, measured response to his outrages, though she was also quick to defend herself during his one major incestuous outburst as he thrust himself onto her prone body. Even during the odd scene of the madmen, who entered chained in a huddle before being released to ramble about the stage and auditorium, she maintained a powerful and inquisitive air. Her addresses to Bosola in his various disguises ensured she remained in control, and she accepted her death kneeling upright, only allowing the murderers to pull the cords tight around her neck when she was ready.

Her brothers trod a fine line between villainous and comedic. James Garnon’s Cardinal began as the former and moved to the latter; his early, stately appearances suggested a genuine control over his underlings, and his authority more or less immutable. Yet towards the production’s end, dithering over his conscience and following the well-played murder of Julia (who wiped frantically at her mouth to rid the tingle of the poisoned Bible), his authority was unstable and his final confrontation with Bosola uneven. Far more effective was Ferdinand. Pale-faced and floppy-haired, this effete and dangerous man snapped unpredictably at his followers for laughing before him, and flinched uncomfortably when kissing his sister’s cheek. His hyena’s laugh at sycophantic jokes became a running joke in itself. Yet as he first attacked and then tormented his sister, he moved into darker places. His appearance in the throes of lycanthropia was powerful, incorporating one blood-curdling howl and a series of yelps and whimpers that grounded his responses to John Dougall’s Doctor in the character’s condition. He leaped on the Doctor and savaged his arm. While the dry responses of the other courtiers to the Doctor’s inability to control his patient prompted the biggest laughs of the evening, the unpredictable and violent nature of Ferdinand offered genuine concern, particularly when he began targeting audience members in his ravings.

Waldmann’s Antonio was earnest and good-humoured, and ably supported by Paul Rider’s Delio, though these characters were relatively passive in the play’s action, commenting on rather than driving the events that overtook them. The remainder of the supporting cast were strong, especially Dougall’s ever-reliable performances as the Doctor and the doddering Castruccio and Denise Gough’s marvellous turn as Julia. When holding Bosola at gun-point, she affected an air of sexy innuendo, sashaying towards the bemused man and vamping persuasively. The energy she brought to the closing sequences felt undeniably modern, but the melodrama of her seduction of Bosola and subsequently outlandish murder heightened rather than unbalanced the play’s denouement.

Sean Gilder was a brusque Bosola, more persuasive in his moody villainy than in his flights of earnest conscience. His somewhat clumsy disguises in black hoods and carved masks set him apart, but he was at his best lurking in the recesses of the stage and emerging to begin the next stage of his machinations. Larger and more intimidating than most of the cast, he nonetheless excelled in showing comforting subservience to his victims (in fact, Gilder’s Bosola could have convincingly passed as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell). His whispered allegiance to Antonio and self-flagellation for his mistaken murder were comic in their slow realisations, but his slow approach of the Cardinal, who screamed in anticipation of his death, capitalised on the genuinely menacing presence of the actor.

The production’s patient and methodical build-up of tension and violence worked well, using the shadows and crannies of the space to emphasise Malfi as a play of intrigue and subterfuge. Moments of more ambitious spectacle (Arterton running round the theatre as the Echo and sweeping in via the gallery to deliver her final line, or the bizarre and uncomfortably disjointed closing jig) felt unnecessary; what this trial run for the new space showed was that these plays capitalise on the basic resources of the indoor theatre. A great launch, and full of promise for the future.

Posted in Theatre review