The Duchess of Malfi

Reviewer's Rating

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe opens with a splendid production of Webster’s “Duchess of Malfi”, featuring a stylish and moving performance by Gemma Arterton as the Duchess.

The stunning new space, a very successful attempt to re-imagine a Jacobean indoor theatre, is so small that every member of the audience is close to the actors. The surfaces from floor to painted ceiling are wood and the house is lit by beeswax candles. In this production, the lighting and extinguishing of the candles by the actors is cleverly integrated into the flow of the action. The only drawback is the bench seating, which will be a little uncomfortable for some audience members.

Behind and above the stage there is a minstrels’ gallery – the music for this play is provided by harpsichord, lute, and viol and is an integral part of the performance. It’s a magical space and will provide a superb setting both for drama and for musical performances.

The choice of The Duchess of Malfi as the opening play for the new space is inspired. First performed around 1614, it tells the story of the young widowed Duchess of Malfi who falls in love with her steward Antonio and enters into a secret marriage with him. Her brothers are opposed to any remarriage for their sister and when, through the services of their unscrupulous spy Bosola, they discover that she has married a lowly steward and borne him children, they plan a horrific revenge.

It is a difficult play to direct, and Dominic Dromgoole sometimes struggles to find the right tone for combining episodes of gory horror with moments of gloomy humour. The writing sometimes stutters as Webster’s need to drive the drama forward sabotages his ear for poetry. This production does occasionally play up the laughter to the detriment of the tragedy, but some of the violence is so grotesque that a modern audience is likely to laugh. One death from poison – the character having kissed the cover of a bible while taking an oath – is macabre in the extreme while the ‘severed hand’ episode is just a bit too ‘Addams Family’. But the outcome is overwhelmingly positive, an unforgettable evening.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Gemma Arterton develops the role of the Duchess through from the youthful playfulness of the young widow in love to the dignity and poise of the mature woman under threat from her murderous brothers. They – the Duke, played by David Dawson and the Cardinal, played by James Garnon – convince as renaissance nobles driven by family pride and by less savoury personal motives to extremes of revenge. Outstanding is the Bosola of Sean Gilder, the very archetype of the mercenary soldier/spy selling his services to the highest bidder. His physical presence is that of someone used to killing in the back streets of Naples or Milan, but it is totally believable that his rough charm leads the Duchess to lower her guard. And a special word for Sarah Macrae, making the most of the small role of the cardinal’s mistress.

The evident enthusiasm of director Dominic Dromgoole for the extremes of Jacobean tragedy – and the pace of the production aided by the tight spaces of the acting area – make for an inspiring evening. This is a fitting tribute to Sam Wanamaker, without whom the dream of recreating the Globe for the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries might never have been realised.