`Review: Duchess of Malfi

ZoƩ Barnes 9 November 2016

The Duchess of Malfi is a ham-fisted masterclass in pretentious, disengaged fluff, which might have worked had it not also been thoroughly dull. Too stylised to make any sense and not stylised enough to be original, interesting or thoughtful, it became unintentionally comic, lacked tension and felt very deliberate in direction and movement around the stage. The sort of laughable, cheap lyricism which was thrown in haphazardly could best be described as a countdown of the top five most overused aesthetic clichés of the last twenty years. The effect was stagnant and frustrating, maybe perfectly reflecting the society that the director wished to present.

The pre-set was promising, the Duchess preening herself to the front of a stage set up to rather resemble a cross between a laundry and a Brechtian sweatshop, where sheets ballooned by sleepers took on the appearance of demented, corporate jellyfish. However, the effect was confused and, ultimately, the pre-set added nothing, except possibly highlighting the potentially interesting, anti-feminist twist on the play that becomes ever more obvious as it progresses. Here, the Duchess (Kate Marston) is interpreted as weak-willed, petulant and vacuous – she spoke very prettily, but lacked agency and engagement with the words spoken. She was pathetic where she could have been angry or proud, did not mature as the timeline of the play progressed, was complacent to the events which took place around her, ambivalent to the death of her children, distant with them while they were alive and might have looked more comfortable in her role had she been better costumed and had not needed to pull down her skirts as often as she did.

Individually, each element might have had potential, but costumes jarred with each other and the set made no sense and looked hastily put together at times. The Duchess was in a negligée and trainers, and the manner of her death was very quickly made apparent during the first act, due to the sheer presence of this nonsensical costume choice. Maybe this was supposed to add urban realism, but it came at the expense of reason and much of the subtext of the play.

Ultimately, all of this might have been saved by strong acting, but the performances were unconvincing and lacking in energy and intent, mostly due to the bizarre direction taken with the characters. The ‘sleepers’ added nothing, though maybe they were supposed to create the sense of foreboding that was so sorely missed from the play in general. Many entered the stage a little unsteadily, as though not sure as to why they had been asked to move and act as they did. Ferdinand (Ben Walsh) was the highlight of the play: suitably threatening and juvenile, though sometimes lacking light and shade. In fact, the whole play lacked light and shade, as actors switched between talking quietly and suddenly shouting. A little bit of nuance could have gone a long way while anger needed to be compounded by threat. The Cardinal (Joe Tyler Todd) wasn’t threatening enough, though scenes between him and Julia (Helen Vella Taylor) were quite strong. Antonio (Joe Sefton) seemed to have a genuine connection of sorts with his offspring while the chemistry between him and the Duchess was present, but sexless. For such a sexually charged play, the whole thing ultimately felt very sexless.

There were some positives. The lighting was used effectively, as was sound. The use of shadow during the Duchess’s imprisonment was good, beginning with a touching sentimentality, then gradually getting wilder and more frenzied, the sleepers actually adding something to this scene, breaking through the canvas and finally adding a dose of menace to the proceedings. However, even this swiftly turned silly, rather than holding the tension created.

The Duchess of Malfi is superficial and inane. If you are the sort to be taken in by the razzle dazzle of white chalk, red tissue paper, the use of trainers as a pointless gimmick and dozens of useless bodies strewn about a stage serving no purpose for the entirety of the first act: buy a ticket. Otherwise, don’t bother.