Review: The Duchess of Malfi at Saint Giles-in-the-Fields
Written for Everything Theatre
Probably the best known of John Webster’s plays, The Duchess of Malfi has everything you’d expect from a Jacobean revenge tragedy: incest, corruption, madness and a rather spectacular body count. You’ve guessed it, you’re not in for a cheerful evening with this new production by Scena Mundi.
The unnamed Duchess of Malfi has decided to re-marry after losing her husband, and her eye has fallen on her steward Antonio. Much against the wishes of her brothers, the corrupt Cardinal and her twin Ferdinand, the Duchess and Antonio secretly tie the knot. And as befits a good revenge tragedy, from that moment on it’s pretty much a murder mayhem free for all.
In the midst of all this, Jess Murphy is a restrained and self-assured Duchess, which makes it all the more compelling when she finally lets rip. Perhaps Murphy’s performance is even a bit too good; she is such a grounding presence that when she disappears off stage in the second act, she leaves a noticeable void right at the heart of the play. Another impressive performance comes from Pip Brignall as the Duchess’ pervy twin brother, who plays the role with fittingly over the top abandon.
The actors are not evenly matched, however, and there are one or two less inspired turns as well. Similarly, the overall production is quite uneven, veering between tragic in one moment and almost farcical the next. In some plays that can be a very powerful combination, but here the lighter moments are played for comedy quite hard and the result just feels a bit naff.
There is ample compensation in the look of the show, however. The costumes are a sumptuous combination of fur, leather and skinny jeans that is lavish enough to compete with the swanky surroundings (although it seems that the costume budget ran out before designer Gisèle Venet got round to buying shirts for poor Antonio and Ferdinand). Saint Giles-in-the-Fields makes for a wonderful, atmospheric venue, and director Cecilia Dorlands’s choice not to skimp on the incense and choral singing pays off. Acoustically it’s a difficult, echoey space, but the cast carry their lines off with impressive diction. If only church pews weren’t so hard: three hours on a wooden bench is quite an ask for even the most patient of audience members.
The Duchess of Malfi is playing at Saint Giles-in-the-Fields until 27 May 2017