Review: The Duchess of Malfi

This week at the Drama Barn, dramasoc take on an ambitious adaptation of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi.

As the lights go down, a band of live musicians play a lilting tune and transform the Drama Barn into a Jacobean playhouse for The Duchess of Malfi. On the whole, the production is a well-tuned adaptation, but a few mistruck chords made this show seem, at times, a little less than harmonious.

The set, created by Bryony Cleary and Ellie Bridger, although minimal, gives the impression of a corrupt and lavish court which is home to equally corrupt and lavish characters. For a play fixated with darkness and shadows, the opulent patterned drapery as a backdrop allows for crafty, subtle entrances as well as some wonderfully inventive stage tricks. The costumes, too, are exquisite, and make the overall aesthetic of the show a strong support to the play’s action.

Unfortunately, this production didn’t quite get off on the right foot. The pace of the initial court scenes dragged slightly under verse that lacked conviction. After jumping straight into a heated confrontation-turned-negotiation between Bosola (Angus Bower-Brown) and the Cardinal (Tom Barry), the play hits the brakes. We are introduced to many of the court characters by Antonio (David Bolwell) in conversation with his trusted friend Delio (Samantha Finlay), while an ostentatious pageant of flattery plays out in the background. Bolwell’s Antonio, although invested in his role when gushing his poetic praise of the Duchess, seemed to rush and lacked the animation required to lift this scene from sounding a bit like a roll-call. This was, sadly, somewhat characteristic of the play’s first half, as often lines would be sped over rather than giving the vivacity necessary to get under the skin of Webster’s archaic style.

Each had a commitment to the role which ignited the scenes they came into. Together, their interaction was captivating and electric

Moments of deliciously dark, dramatic tension were provided, however, by the double act of Jared More’s explosive Ferdinand and Bower-Brown’s dangerously sadistic, devilishly sarcastic Bosola. Each had a commitment to the role which ignited the scenes they came into. Together, their interaction was so captivating and electric that I found myself – admittedly – slightly more invested in their relationship than Antonio’s and the Duchess’s. A particular note of the scenes between More and Bower-Brown, but one that was also worked to effect by the whole cast, was their fearless attitude towards stage proximity. Antonio and Bosola would spar, quite literally, to each other’s faces, which gave a measured sense of intensity to their vicious plotting. Bower-Brown’s Bosola was the driving force behind this production, effortlessly drawing the audience into his malicious games, before executing a genuine, pathos-filled pivot to inspire a complex kind of sympathy. Also commendable was Amelia Hamilton’s Julia, whose quick witted delivery and playful confidence acted as a much-needed comic relief against the play’s amassing pile of bodies.

By the second act it seemed that the spark of intensity had burst into full flame. The play’s central quartet of the Duchess (Hannah Forsyth), the Cardinal (Thomas Barry), Ferdinand (Jared More) and Bosola (Angus Bower-Brown) brought a renewed energy and fulfilled some of Webster’s most fantastic scenes with aplomb. Hannah Forsyth’s Duchess, who initially came across as partly restrained and lacking the Duchess’s charming charisma, came into her own and was able to inhabit a greater range of emotion than perhaps the former half allowed. At times Forsyth’s somewhat rigid physicality inhibited her character’s impassioned speeches and persecuted scenes, however this was transposed effectively into the Duchess’s famous stoicism in the second half. Forsyth handled unrelenting pride as well as bitter grief with skill, however I was left feeling that, in parts, her Duchess lacked the effortless stage presence that her character demanded.

Worth a watch for its moments of masterful performances and as a creative take on those typically ghoulish Websterian stage spectacles

The ambition of this production is admirable in delivering Webster’s inescapably macabre and nightmarish tragedy. While the play falls short of that high aim in the occasional jarring of verse and pace, this production is nonetheless worth a watch for its moments of masterful performances and as a creative take on those typically ghoulish Websterian stage spectacles.

The show will run again tonight and tomorrow at the Drama Barn, with tickets available for both the Saturday and Sunday performances here.