first night

The Duchess of Malfi

Donnchadh O'Connail is impressed by HBT's Fresher's production of John Webster's play.

            Before discussing the play, a word about the setting. The Duchess of Malfi is, apparently, the first HBT show to be staged in the Undercroft, and it benefited greatly from the relocation. It is a good-old-fashioned everyone-dies-soliloquising Jacobean tragedy, but few of the scenes are on an epic scale, and it would probably have looked lost in Caedmon Hall. With the audience in much closer proximity, with bare walls and harsh light, its claustrophobia and insanity bloomed like dark flowers.

            Rachel Nwokoro made some intelligent decisions regarding the space, using both a raised area at the back of the stage and a booth above the audience to good effect. Some of the more complex scenes were particularly well integrated. My favourite of these was how the various inmates of an asylum were ushered away on the arrival of Bosola. Here, the positioning and movement of the actors (and their gradually falling silent) created an extra dramatic impetus for the scene which followed. The lights which included neon memorably deployed in one tableau, were often atmospheric, although some scenes were underlit to no apparent purpose. Some effort had gone to achieving an integrated feel to the whole production: the audience were called from the bar and ushered in by cast members in character, which suited the subterranean feel of the space. But I must confess I didn’t understand some of the design aspects: for example, if there was a pattern to the colours of the face paint, it was lost on me.

            The strongest feature of the direction, and of the production as a whole, was the strong level of acting across the board, particularly considering the cast were all Hild Bede freshers. At times there could have been more polish. The opening exchanges were marred by some inaudible lines and several pauses from AJ Lawrence, who showed himself a capable comic when he hit his stride. However, the production was fortunate that the main parts were in the hands of actors capable of fluently delivering Webster’s often dense verse. Morton Jacobsen (Bosola) had the most interesting part and the greatest volume of lines, and he set about both with gusto. Half his face blackened, shoeless, often entering in the background to some other characters, his lines were charged with resentment, cynicism and disgust at the Duchess’ pregnancy. (The play contains some bracing misogyny, making it a particularly interesting choice for a female director.) I did feel his performance weakened somewhat in the second half, but that is partly due to Bosola’s rather under-motivated remorse for his crimes and a general degeneration of the plot (of which more below).

            Jacobsen had a perfect in foil in Freddie Herman, playing Ferdinand, the Duchess’ brother who hires Bosola to spy on his sister. Ferdinand is arrogant to begin with and ends up (literally) howling mad, the transition between these being effected by rage at his widowed sister’s new relationship and pregnancy. Crucial to the part, therefore, is the development from one state to the next. Herman nailed the first transition; his spite was a thing of wonder (it was noticeable that Jacobson and Herman were the most successful members of the cast at capturing the poetry in Webster’s writing). The full-blown madness was rather sillier, but it is that kind of character: if you have to utter the line “I go hunt the badger by owl-light”, you might as well do so with rolling eyes and skeletal make-up. Will Hannam, playing the Cardinal, Fedinand’s brother and sometime co-conspirator, created his own bizarre but undoubtedly appropriate effect, a deep voice delivering lines in a sing-song manner. This could have made the character a comedy aristocrat, but when matched with Hannam’s dead-eyed stare, the result was a striking detachment and sense of entitlement.

            The titular Duchess herself is less developed as a character, being more the unwitting catalyst for the depravations of others. Nevertheless, I felt Leonora Bailey could have drawn more from the role. She seemed a little too tentative in conveying her emotions in many scenes, particularly with regards to her movements and body language. When Ferdinand menaced her with a dagger, she seemed perturbed rather than terrified; she only really came into her own in her death scene. More naturally expressive was Sophia Harrop, excellent as the Duchess’ servant Cariola, engaging fully in each scene without ever trying to steal it.

            The biggest drawback to the production was the simplest; it was too long. However much editing had taken place, it wasn’t enough. To be fair, this is partly a structural problem with the script itself. The death of the Duchess felt like a natural climax, but the action staggers on for another act. This might make sense when reading the script, but in a staging it is enervating and encourages the more ridiculous elements of the plot, which had been kept under control until then. The design and direction of this production show that Nwokoro is not afraid to make bold decisions; the performances demonstrate that she has the skill to often make them work. I look forward to seeing whether she can find a dramatic vehicle to more fully realise the promise on display here.

14 February 2011

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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