The Duchess of Malfi at Almeida Theatre: A timeless story with a bold handling of power, madness and despair
A decade ago Lydia Wilson appeared in Sarah Kane’s infamous Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith. I didn’t see it (and at that age, I probably should not have), but it caused a storm. After last night’s performance of The Duchess of Malfi, I wish I could have been there. Wilson is a powerbroker on stage, her Duchess has a centre of gravity that seems not only to hold an audience’s attention but to spin the whole play in orbit around her. Jessie Thompson, who interviewed Wilson in the Evening Standard last week in the run-up to this show’s opening, described her as ‘the most un-actorly actor I’ve met’. I imagine this is reflective of an actor who knows how to work with balance and precision, seeing her as the Duchess I believe that wholeheartedly.
Page 7 of the show’s programme asks: is The Duchess of Malfi a feminist play? Dympna Callaghan notes that Webster considered himself part of a classical line of playwrights, playwrights like Sophocles, Euripides and Seneca, who told the tales of Antigone, Jocasta, Medea, Phaedra; women whose lives become tragedies at the hands of powerful men. The politics of this production are finely woven into it, it is not polemical with its message, it knows exactly what it is and what it’s saying. Small symbolic gestures are employed; the Duchess’s legacy in this production becomes decidedly female. It is bold in its handling of power, madness and despair, but all the while subtle in its execution.
The crystal symmetry of the set made every second of the play a visual treat. The centre-piece was a glass panelled booth, employed throughout to metaphorical effect; at once the place from which the characters emerge at the start of act one, and the morbid resting place for the play’s many cadavers. The sharp light, white-tiled interior of the box lent it the feel of an abattoir, rending much of the brutality that much more shocking. The sound from within the box was played through speakers, meaning it was often muffled and some of the Early Modern English script tapered away.
The play continued its symmetrical style at a higher level, well balanced between acts – the first, a tale of spying and intrigue, the second, an unrelenting downward spiral. It was chartered with a Brechtian arrangement of placards which introduced themes and anticipated events, meaning nothing was hidden from us as an audience. It was intellectually respectful and creatively generous. Perhaps some of the movement was bizarre: at times I had to myself work to appreciate some slow-mo transitions.
The production seemed to have a blasé approach to time, it didn’t seem to try to convey a sense of time passing, nor was it overly fussed about when exactly it was set; daggers, poison and guns all make an appearance. Its prime emphasis was on narrative, and it was consistent in this regard. Untethered from context, it may well be the case that director Rebecca Fracknall is drawing attention to the timelessness and universality of this story.
The Duchess of Malfi is on at Almeida Theatre from 30th November – 25th January
Photo Credit: Marc Brenner