The Duchess of Malfi

March 27, 2021, by Peter Kirwan

The Duchess of Malfi (Creation/TORCH) @ Zoom

The dynamics of looking within The Duchess of Malfi are subtle and complex. Whether in its moments of extraordinary spectacle, as dismembered bodies are revealed and cardinals are armed, or in the more quotidian business of spying, commenting, and observing from the sidelines, the play repeatedly triangulates the audience’s gaze and engages its onstage and offstage viewers in networks of complicity, dramatic irony, and stratified power. It’s a dramaturgical challenge for a production that takes place on Zoom, with its players necessarily separated by space if not by time, and in a medium which elides the imagined physical space between spectators.

Laura Wright and Natasha Rickman’s production for Creation – who have already established themselves as leaders in pandemic-era Zoom theatre, and who are here working in partnership with TORCH – offered a technically dazzling and intelligent reworking of spatial dynamics to accommodate the play to a single screen, both fragmenting and superimposing images to create relationships between characters that shift between the impressionistic and the literal. By refusing to stick to a single spatial logic, but instead allowing the dynamics of each scene to determine the best visual representation, this Malfdeveloped a unique (and uniquely Zoom-oriented) grammar that evolved with the story and surprised at the formal as well as the narrative level. It’s a bold and audacious experiment that, to my mind, is the most satisfactory blend of filmic and theatrical styles I’ve seen in this medium so far.

The production began with the traditional Zoom blocks, though carefully organised to place Antonio (Kofi Dennis) and Delio (Andy Owens) at the edges of the frame, talking across the screen while the characters they spoke about – Graeme Rose’s Bosola, Giles Stoakley’s Cardinal, Dharmesh Patel’s Ferdinand – appeared in other boxes, diagonally bisecting Antonio and Delio’s axis. By having Delio and Antonio lean in closely to the screen, their private conversation registered as such, while the ones they were watching largely kept a bit more distance, implying their more observable interactions. And then, at a climactic point, Annabelle Terry’s Duchess emerged onto the screen, a vision that silenced the rest of the cast, who all looked upwards, sideways or down from their boxes to gaze upon her. This was a lovely moment that also exemplified the fluid spatial logic of the production; whereas people usually looked into the camera in order to look ‘out’ of their boxes at people they were speaking to, the Duchess’s appearance suddenly reconceptualised the space according to the frame of the Zoom screen, literally redirecting everybody’s gaze in impossible and yet immediately clear ways.

The magnetic power of the Duchess established, the production then shifted modes. This Malfi was set on the Italian Riviera c.1960s, full of the glamour of Italian New Wave film. The Duchess herself regularly slipped into Italian, and the milieu was one of cocktails, intrigue, and travel, with title cards showing trains pulling into stations or simply establishing the fashionable locations. The Duchess herself wielded no small amount of control over her environments, Terry performing the role with an entitled confidence that didn’t detract from the character’s warmth and good humour. The Duchess herself regularly dominated the frame, at least in the production’s first half, while others were separated off; in a nice bit of split-screen humour, the Cardinal made a phone call in a box in the upper right hand corner while his mistress (presumably played by whoever Stoakley is isolating with) hung around his neck, a rare moment of real human contact in a production that had to otherwise find alternative methods of implying co-presence.

The particular technical leap-forward here was the production’s seamless superimposition of images to make it seem like people were sharing the same room, a technique particularly used for the Duchess and Antonio. Crucially, and unlike certain parts of Creation/Big Telly’s Macbeth, the production didn’t try to make this too realistic; the scale of the Duchess and Antonio was often explicitly off. But by blurring the divisions between the backgrounds with coloured filters and some careful blocking, the characters could be brought together without dividing lines and share a full screen as a couple, speaking to each other by both looking to the camera and sharing intimacy that (aside from the time lags between lines) allowed the production to effectively evoke co-presence and develop the stakes of this privileged relationship.

But the looming presence of Ferdinand, particularly, began to be felt. From early in the production, Ferdinand’s image started taking spatial liberties, growing and shifting to overlap that of his sister. Ferdinand’s incestuous desire was keenly felt throughout this, Patel’s heavy breathing and lingering looks allowing the audience to perversely share both his voyeurism and the experience of being the object of that voyeurism. As the shimmering, semi-transparent Ferdinand overlapped with the image of his sister and the two became indistinguishable, so too did his assumption of proprietorial rights over his sister and his co-option of her space become clear. The fact that Ferdinand’s image in particular seemed free from the spatial constraints that affected other performers gave him a particularly insidious and inescapable effect, contributing to the helplessness of Act 4.

These effects continued into the play’s dark scenes, and the evocation of darkness through even more spatial disorientation aligned with the production’s representation of Ferdinand’s control. One particularly stunning shot saw Bosola, clear in the foreground, taking instruction from a translucent Ferdinand whose head was larger than the frame, speaking in profile with particular attention on his enormous mouth. Ferdinand’s translucence here and elsewhere contrasted with the sharpness of Bosola, played with taciturn dignity by Rose. That Bosola came so literally and visually into focus centred his choices and experience, privileging his reactions and changes in allegiance. By contrast, the dark scenes conveyed an effectively eerie atmosphere, with actors dimly lit and isolated against obscured backgrounds. Terry’s work as the Duchess in these scenes emphasised the horror of her psychological torture, with the sound design (it’s no surprise that co-director Wright is currently writing a book on sound effects) consciously unsettling the disjointed spaces that we could see. The Duchess’s realisation that she was holding a severed hand, in particular, had more effect here than in any stage production I’ve seen, the realisation crystal clear to audience and Duchess alike at the same time.

The horror increased with Ferdinand’s transformation. This was, perhaps, a less successful element of the production, its more postmodern humour as Ferdinand transformed himself into a Freddy Krueger-like monster complete with prosthetic forks and spoons somewhat countering the atmosphere of dread established elsewhere. The production had great fun with sequences of a cutlery-embellished hand working its way around a door, but the less we saw, the more effective it was. This rule was borne out by a surprisingly effective echo sequence, during which the Duchess’s voice could be heard with absolute clarity but the Duchess herself was not seen; here, the disembodied sounds gestured to a world outside of what could be seen within the frame, the Duchess seeming in death to adopt more of Ferdinand’s free-floating agency even while Ferdinand himself became more solid.

In cutting the production down to an hour and forty minutes – far longer than any other Creation show I’ve seen – the adaptors still had to make some serious cuts, including losing Cariola and Julia entirely, thus placing even more focus on the Duchess as the play’s sole woman apart from the briefly-seen (and newly anonymised) mistress of the Cardinal. The net result of this was a more intense focus on familial control, the sneering Cardinal and the increasingly unhinged Ferdinand looming into the frame to obsess over their sister, cutting down on the wider political implications. This also made for a surprisingly intimate and very funny bloody climax, with the faces of Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal shifting impressionistically towards one another in a focused Mexican stand-off. At one point, the Cardinal came so close to the screen that parts of his face disappeared, only for him them to stagger backwards with one of Ferdinand’s forks stuck in his eye, a moment that reminded me of Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi, with its similar predilection for macabre uses of kitchen-wear.

The visual and spatial inventiveness grew throughout the production in tune with Ferdinand’s madness and the rapid acceleration of events beyond the control of any on person, leading to the delirious arrangement of the final deaths. Which then made the stability of the climax all the more effective as Delio returned, holding the baby daughter of the Duchess (interestingly, suggesting a female heir and thus the christening of a new Duchess). The sight of Owens holding a real baby, who shifted and gurgled in all-too-physical ways in Delio’s arms, suddenly grounded this Malfi in the physical and tangible, creating stability after the fluidity of what had come before. It’s certainly the most effective ending to a production of Malfi I’ve ever seen, giving Delio unusual prominence and offering a hope for the future that may be more prosaic in its visual grammar, but which offered respite from the uncanny and surreal interventions made by Ferdinand and the Cardinal in the space of the screen. This was a real triumph for Creation, and a worthy addition to this play’s illustrious performance tradition.

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