January 25, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

The Duchess of Malfi @ The Almeida Theatre

Appropriate to a time when the scrutiny of celebrities – and, indeed, Dukes and Duchesses – is front page news, Rebecca Frecknall’s production of The Duchess of Malfi put its ruling figures literally into a box. Chloe Lamford’s set comprised a hexagonal stage, on top of which stood an enormous illuminated box fronted with full-length glass panes. The insides were tiled, with a long bench and some hooks evoking showers or changing rooms (perhaps with more sinister connotations of gas chambers), and as the production began, the ruling class of Malfi was positioned inside the box, standing facing forward, as if elaborate waxworks.

The box acted as the major spatial demarcation in a production that played fascinatingly with surveillance and watchfulness, clearly separating the watchers from the watched. The box’s dynamics were inconsistent throughout – sometimes it operated on a different temporal logic, with characters slipping into slow motion; sometimes it contained those who were being surveyed, and sometimes those doing the surveillance; sometimes it was a space of display, at other times a place to hide. Most often, though, it acted as a more private or exclusive space – the main stage became the antechamber to the more privileged world in which the Duchess and her brothers resided, and later it became the Duchess’s private rooms where she could live freely with her family. For the majority of the production, it meant that there were at least two separate realms visible (even apart from the actors lingering at the sides of the stage when not involved in scenes), constantly relating the action of the main scene to how it affected others.

Frecknall’s approach utilised the stage’s arrangement to offer a serious, feminist reading of the play that stressed the bloody and cruel treatment of women who claim agency. Webster’s comedy was dulled throughout – the madmen were cut, and an insistent droning underscore gave a sinister undertone to scenes such as Julia’s gunpoint wooing of Bosola that are often played more comedically. The spectacle was also dialled down, with all elements of Catholic paraphernalia removed (even the poisoned Bible was replaced with a simple toast, though the Cardinal retained his title). The emphasis was less on the state than on the interpersonal relationships, with a tone of persistent dread and distress and abuse tracing the emotional through-line up to the inevitable deaths.

At the heart of the production was Lydia Wilson’s Duchess, claiming the lead role in both stage time and in the production’s investment in her. Wilson’s youthful Duchess, in immaculate straight blonde wig and elegant dress, was calmly spoken yet trapped; the image of her with her hand pressed against the glass of the onstage box resonated throughout. Tender to Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford), she nonetheless looked to Antonio (Khalid Abdalla) as someone who offered something different from the restrained formality she displayed around her brothers. The wooing scene was an especial pleasure, with Wilson showing an amusing nervousness around her steward – first smiling so long and so broadly at him that he didn’t know where to look, then repeatedly trying to usher him into a chair to get him to relax, then veering between bravado and hesitation as she tried to set out her intentions. The sequence paid especial attention to the gestural language of the wooing, concentrating on the passage of the ring and the placement on his finger, before she stooped to persuade him to rise up to her level, literally and metaphorically.

The dynamic between Antonio and the Duchess was interesting throughout. Abdalla gave a massive performance, his arms gesticulating wildly everywhere and his movement anxious, nervous, taking up a lot of the stage; the Duchess, at least for the first half, was much less physically demonstrative and did her work with her voice. This dynamic Antonio was at times distracting, but did much of the work of stressing the passion and peril of the relationship. When the family were seen together before their discovery by Ferdinand, Antonio picked up the Duchess and pressed her against the wall, the two all over one another (albeit, slightly oddly, with their young daughter and Ioanna Kimbook’s Cariola right there). In a choice I’ve not seen before, when Antonio ushered Cariola and his daughter out with himself to play a trick on the Duchess, they remained visible downstage, listening in as Ferdinand confronted his sister. While that scene played out, Cariola and Antonio protected the young girl, covering her ears, and Cariola restrained Antonio from bursting back into the room, giving the whole scene an added tension.

To this end, I found myself a little disappointed that the Duchess’s role following her discovery was less varied, a view no doubt influenced by the amount of time I’ve spent recently working on Cheek by Jowl’s 1995 production, with its more complex Duchess. Here, the parting scene between the Duchess and Antonio played squarely (though effectively) for pity and injustice, the two trying to snatch their final moments together. And throughout the second half (especially with the wry sequence of the madmen removed) the Duchess’s arc was one of relentless misery. Ferdinand’s trick with ‘Antonio’s’ hand was played in complete blackout, a decision I understand in avoiding any possibility that the dramatic irony of the Duchess accepting a severed hand might occasion laughter, but which makes it hard to appreciate the extent to which her hope is raised by the prospect of seeing Antonio again. Her reaction to the sight of Antonio’s corpse in the glass box was extreme as she slapped against the glass walls and against her own arms; and when she was then removed to the glass box herself, she oscillated between calm reflection and a rocking that implied her increasing instability, with occasional histrionic outbursts. It was bleak, and unrelenting.

Some of the production’s effects were diminished by the over-determined design. The glass box creaked and squeaked as it rolled back and forth down the hexagonal stage, and the heavily miked voices of the actors when inside the glass box flattened tone and pitch, all of which coupled with the drone of the underscore sometimes made it simply hard to hear what was being said. Far better, however, was the use of microphones diegetically, as Leo Bill’s Bosola stood outside the Duchess’s prison and spoke his threats into the microphone, his voice piped into her prison. This distance – appealing to a man doing a job he did not want to do – paid off then as he presented himself as the Duchess’s executioner inside the glass box, wearing simple shirt and shorts. The Duchess presented herself for the murder, forcing him to kneel with her and to go through the long, protracted business of strangling her (in stark contrast to Cariola fighting back against Bosola’s two enormous lackeys, who snapped her neck unceremoniously).

Bosola was one of the production’s more interesting choices, presenting him as somewhat sympathetic, at least for the play’s first half. Prowling round the edges of the stage in an outdoor coat, he railed against both the sharply dressed Cardinal (Michael Marcus) and the Byronesque Ferdinand. His praise of Antonio to the Duchess was genuine, and his disgust at the things he was being asked to do deeply felt. While it’s hard to retain sympathy for Bosola in Act 4, Bill made clear throughout – especially at the point of murder – his distaste for it, and his journey for the rest of the play was one of increasing chaos as he sought some kind of redemption. With even servants such as Antonio and Cariola using RP, Bosola’s London twang cast him as outsider, and as he gradually lost control, the play descended into its bloody climax.

For the final act, the play switched to a different mode, which jarred somewhat with the more consistent aesthetic of the previous two hours to create different kinds of effect. Following Cariola and the Duchess’s murders, they marched to two glass cabinets that stood either side of the stage, dipped their fingers in bowls, and smeared black over their throats and arms, before returning to the glass case. The Duchess became the Doctor, coldly restraining Ferdinand during his lycanthropy before he leaped on top of her and pinned her down; the double was interesting, but its purpose not entirely clear. The Duchess moved about the stage as a semi-ghostly figure, loading the pistol that Julia (Shalini Peiris) would hold on Bosola, and brilliantly speaking her Echo into a microphone as she walked around Antonio and stood before his face, pleading with her husband to save his life. The moments were all effective in their own way, if not presenting an especially coherent sense of the Duchess’s posthumous symbolic agency. I also felt that the Cardinal and Ferdinand’s stories were significantly less interesting in this production – the Cardinal, stripped of his Catholicism, felt like an anonymous Bad Guy, and while Ferdinand writhed and moaned impressively, and not that much of his role was cut, his presence seemed minor. Antonio’s death was histrionic (though Bosola’s reaction to realising he’d killed the wrong man was pleasingly shocked), and by this stage the three dead women had returned to waxwork position in the glass case, watching the action rather than intervening; all were shocked by Antonio’s death, but their expressions of sympathy and pity emphasised their passivity just after several scenes in which the Duchess had been actively involving herself in scenes after death.

The contradictions in tone that pervaded this production were summed up for me by the conclusion. As Antonio, the Cardinal and Ferdinand went through their final motions, the scene switched into the most indulgent slow motion I’ve ever seen. The drone of the underscore finally turned into an operatic requiem singing ‘Remember me’ as the three men went into an interminable slo-mo death scene around Antonio’s body in which they writhed in a pool of black goo, stretched their hands towards the encased Duchess, and fell over one another in an aestheticised display of violence that, to me at least, was unintentionally funny and anticlimactic. But after this, the young girl playing the Duchess’s daughter emerged (to audible gasps from the audience). Surveying the seven dead bodies onstage, she walked over to her father and dipped her hand in the black goo. She turned to look at the women in the case, who reached out to her, and then turned to the audience, looking out at us, asking us for something. The emotionally powerful conclusion was a fitting end to a production that didn’t always cohere as well as I’d hoped, but which managed to be angry, affecting, and always visually arresting.

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