Pros: A wonderful cast of carefully-drawn characters, rich dialogue and a gripping storyline. I was so wrapped up in it I was almost in tears at one point.
Cons: Be prepared for poetic and period language but don’t let it dissuade you from attending as the excellent acting will overcome any reluctance you may have.
I knew of The Duchess of Malfi but had never seen a production. I read a basic synopsis online before going along to the New Diorama to see this version, which is part of the Camden Fringe. In my ignorance I was unaware that the play was written in 1612 by John Webster and so I was unprepared for the poetic language of this Jacobean tragedy. I was thankful for my advanced reading and the information contained within the programme.
The original setting of the court of Amalfi in 1504–10 is presented on a bare stage with occasional props and layers of black, grey and white diaphanous curtains. The painted backdrop is of a receding corridor with doorways leading off both sides. As the play unfolds, this becomes a sinister visual reminder of the corridors of power and all who lurk and listen within their shadows.
The widowed Duchess assures her two brothers that she will acquiesce to their wishes and not remarry, but secretly she marries Antonio, the steward in her palace. Suspicions and rumours are rife, though, and with the help of Bosolo, a spy hired by Ferdinand, their short marriage is uncovered and brought to a tragic end.
The cast of nine are excellent without exception. Special mention must be made of Lucy Laing as the Duchess; she moves from coquettish bride, to devoted mother, to condemned women with astonishing dignity and integrity. Tom Blyth (Ferdinand) is wonderful as her twin brother; as his obsession and incestuous leanings gradually drive him to madness, his performance is deliciously over the top. The dialogue is poetic and intricate – and there’s a lot of it; much respect goes to the cast for a smooth rendition with barely a glitch.
I must also mention the great costumes. The duchess is modern and stylish in structured pieces while she’s on formal show, soft and maternal in pyjamas, then stripped and undone at the end. The Cardinal, in his red satin suit and studded leather collar, is a conundrum of papal red with devilish undertones. And Ferdinand is a rock star dandy in skinny jeans and cummerbund accessorised with a dagger.
I found the production gripping, the characters all enthralling in their own ways, and the storyline compelling. What more could you want? Well maybe some air conditioning? The 80-seat auditorium was quite steamy and the interval exodus for cooler air wasn’t refreshing due to the muggy weather outside. Sitting in the front row, I felt for the actors who were sometimes visibly struggling with the heat, and yet somehow the Duchess and Cariola managed to retain their cool dignity.
Author: John Webster
Director: Natalie York
Producer: Pell Mell Theatre Company
Booking Until: 23 August 2014
Box Office: 020 7383 9034
Booking Link: http://newdiorama.com/whats-on/the-duchess-of-malfi