Almeida Theatre, London – until 25 January 2020
Lydia Wilson is back on stage, hurrah. Haven’t seen her since she played Kate in Charles III back in 2014 and seeing her as the Duchess of Malfi reminded me how much I’ve missed her on stage. I do love a good, gruesome piece of Jacobean drama.
The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy sparked by the widowed Duchess deciding to defy her powerful brothers and not only marry but marry ‘beneath her’. Her siblings’ instructions are motivated by a desire to inherit the Duchess’ wealth, snobbery and, in the case of her deranged twin Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) incestuous lust.
It is a play about power and greed and women’s lack of currency in society. The threat to the Duchess is evidence even before her secret marriage to Antonio (Khalid Abdalla) her gentle former steward. When her brother picks up a dagger, a family heirloom, during a conversation her nervousness and discomfort marks him out as already dangerous and volatile. Her secret happy family life begins but you know it won’t (cannot) last. But this is Webster so the body count must be high and it isn’t only the brothers who are out to punish and enact revenge.
Wilson has a magnetic stage presence, you hang on every word and gesture. Her Duchess is a strong woman, clever, kind, stoic and justifiably angry, it makes her an all the more tragic figure.
The production is satisfyingly gory, albeit done in a way that is fitted with its colour palette, almost luxuriating in its stylised fight scenes that contrast tonally with convulsive verbal outbursts nurtured by the plays growing dramatic tension.
But there are a couple of distractions. Riddiford’s increasingly mad Ferdinand falls into movements and exercises that are alien enough to pull me away from what is happening in the scene.
And equally odd was the glass-fronted, oblong box towards the back of the shiny black stage which was styled inside as if it was a swimming pool or gym changing room with dazzling white tiles and bench.
It worked well as a sort of tableau ‘display cabinet’ for characters from a previous scene, a vivid and emotive backdrop.
However, when it was used as a social space for happy family scenes or parties you could almost smell the chlorine – it was too oddly clinical and detracted from the scene.
These are minor points in what was otherwise an enjoyable and gripping production. I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
The Duchess of Malfi is at the Almeida Theatre until 25 January and is 2 hours and 45 minutes including an interval.
You might also like to read:
End of year review: My least favourite plays of 2019.
My 10 favourite plays from the past 10 years.
From the archive, the StOlivier awards from 2012 (because it reminded me of a funny situation with Poly and Emma Freud at the NT)
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