Tag Archives: John Webster

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)


Bloody bloody

THE DUCHESS OF MALFI

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th March, 2018

 

Maria Aberg’s trimmed-down version of the John Webster tragedy begins with the title character dragging a headless animal corpse onto the stage.  It’s massive and no easy task.  The thing is strung up by its  hind legs and remains in place throughout the performance.  Aberg is fond of her gimmicks (remember the big balloons in her King John) and this dead cow is the big one for this production.  Not only does this bovine body symbolise butchery (and what self-respecting revenge tragedy would be without butchery?) but it also represents the female form as object, as a piece of meat, of something to be consumed.

The stage is marked by the overlapping lines of a sports hall, a distinctly masculine arena, and indeed the choreography of the male actors comes across like the worlds’ most aggressive Zumba class.

The Duchess’s brothers, one a clergyman, the other a Duke, seek to quash their sister’s independence.  How dare she choose her own husband?!  And so, church and state conspire to have the wayward woman comply to their will.  As Duke Ferdinand, Alexander Cobb is darkly camp, unhinged and psychotic, while Chris New as the supposed holy man is overtly brutal and sinister in his dog collar and white gloves.  They are the villains, to be sure, but so is the world where toxic masculinity is the only way to go.  But it’s #NotAllMen – the Duchess’s love interest is the nerdy, Clark Kent-alike Antonio (Paul Woodson) who has less of the serial killer to him and more of the cereal café.  His love scenes with the Duchess are all the sweeter because we just know their happiness will be short-lived – from our point of view; a few years elapse during the two-hour traffic of this stage.

Orlando Gough’s original music adds otherworldliness to the piece and above all a sense of foreboding.  The absolute highlight of the evening is a blistering rendition of the old standard, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” sung by Aretha Ayeh, while the Duchess and Antonio dance in a loving embrace.  Gradually, Gough’s tones take over.  It is Aberg at her most Emma Rice and it works beautifully.

The ever-present animal carcass is stabbed open by Ferdinand at the top of the second half.  Blood oozes inexorably across the floor, like the inevitable, impending denouement, like the mortality that will inescapably claim us all.  The characters carry on oblivious of the creeping puddle at their feet.  They fight, struggle with, and murder each other, becoming coated and drenched in the stuff.  I suspect this is the reason why the costumes are present-day: for ease of replacement and cleaning!

As the Duchess, Joan Iyola is elegant and commanding, sultry, sensual and above all controlled – a little too much perhaps during moments of extremis.  Hired killer Bosola, (Nicolas Tennant) waxes philosophical, regretting he allowed the horse to bolt before he barred the stable door in a show of conscience awakened too late.  He’s the most interesting character of the lot.  While other cast members can match Tennant’s power and presence, they are not given the range of facets to explore.

At turns brutal and tender, the production proves eminently watchable and provocative but its point, like its blood-drenched characters, proves somewhat too slippery.

malfi

Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) holds the Duchess (Joan Iyola) in a fraternal embrace… (Photo: Helen Maybanks)


A Devil of a Time

THE WHITE DEVIL

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 23rd August, 2014

John Webster’s revenge tragedy is given the Maria Aberg treatment in this brash production. I say ‘treatment’ because many of the ideas are familiar from a previous production (her King John). There is a contemporary setting, contemporary costumes and too much music – loud, pulsating music to which the cast perform a variation on the Macarena.   Chiefly though is the re-use of the gimmick of giving the villain a sex-change. Here Flaminio is a woman, albeit one that dresses in a masculine style. The idea, I’m supposing, is that by dressing and behaving as a man, Flaminio avoids the usual fate of women. In this garb, she also perpetuates that way of treating women (and indeed there are women in society today who uphold the anti-feminist agenda), but she is nothing more than an evil, murderous lesbian. In short, the sex swap doesn’t work. I wanted to enjoy Laura Elphinstone’s somewhat Ant-and-Dec-esque performance but was too irked by the director’s choice.

            The music is annoying – oh, goody: another party scene! – and the contemporary clothing does not help distinguish characters. Cardinal Monticelso (the marvellous David Rintoul – I could listen to him read till receipts) is undermined by his Butlins red coat. Simon Scardifield’s Francisco sports a Frank Spencer beret.  And why cast the mighty Tony Jayawardena and give him nothing to do?

            Leading lady Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell) is a fading party girl who must be punished for living it up and giving men what they want. Ratty wigs and crumpled tutus do her no favours. In the court scene, she comes as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, but the tone of this key scene is uneven – Bushell gives us one minute the victim, at the mercy of male attitudes and double standards, and the next she is offhandedly sarcastic. It doesn’t quite gel.  Occasionally, the power of Webster’s drama comes through.  Faye Castelow’s Isabella has a powerful scene and a messy death – this is how Webster should be done!

            I would have preferred period costume. Let the themes and argument of the play speak for itself, rather than bending and shaping it to fit some agenda that obfuscates the action. “Take my sword,” says someone, handing over a flick-knife. No.

Kirsty Bushell

Kirsty Bushell