What’s it all about, Malfi?

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 12th November, 2022

John Webster’s revenge tragedy, first produced in 1614, comes to the Ron Barber studio in this elegant, abbreviated version, directed by Andrew Cowie.  A cast of nine hurtle through the action and, for the most part, handle the text well – especially when the characters are being angry or insane or both.

In the title role, Grace Cheatle is an appealing duchess, marrying her alluring femininity with a kind of playful innocence.  She also marries her steward, in secret and against the wishes of her control freak brothers, Duke Ferdinand (Andrew Elkington) and the Cardinal (Tom Lowde).  These are the villains of the piece but their dirty work is carried out by the formidable Robert Laird as ex-con and henchman for hire, Daniel de Bosola, who spies on the duchess and gets most of Webster’s best lines.  “We are merely the star’s tennis balls, struck and banded Which way please them.”– A nice philosophy but it’s the duchess’s brothers who strike and band him around!

Elkington and Lowde each shine, especially in scenes of distress, and yet again the costume team at the Crescent come up trumps, realising the designs of Stewart and Rose Snape.  Duke Ferdinand’s madness is more alarming than anything feigned by Hamlet.

Jason Adam makes an impression as Antonio the steward, and there is superb support from Fi Cotton as the loyal waiting woman, Cariola – grieving and getting strangled in heart-wrenching moments.  Charlotte Thompson is assured and somewhat coquettish as the Cardinal’s fiery mistress, while Jess Shannon works wonders with the non-descript ‘nice’ role of Delia, Antonio’s friend – and survivor of the climactic massacre.

Andrew Cowie’s direction keeps the action moving at quite a lick and there are some splendid scenes in lantern light. The scene where the duchess is visited by a group of lunatics seems underdone, though.  As the action reaches its denouement, he brings out the dark humour of the piece but, curiously, for a revenge tragedy, the stage is surprisingly blood free.  Apart from a nosebleed on a handkerchief and a wax dummy painted with it, this is a remarkably sterile bloodbath.  One of the delights of revenge tragedy is the copious bloodletting at the end.  We have enjoyed seeing the mighty and powerful behaving extremely badly; similarly, their comeuppance must be extreme, washing their sins away with their own blood.

As ever, production values are high – but perhaps the budget doesn’t run to the laundry bill or contain enough for buckets of stage blood to be added to the props list!  The chequerboard floor of Keith Harris and Michael Barry’s set suggests chess, symbolising the plots and stratagems of just about all the characters, the black and white squares the evil or good of their natures.

Stylish, elegant and gripping if a bit anaemic.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Fi Cotton and Grace Cheatle (Photo: Graeme Braidwood)

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About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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