What has changed about the nature of violence against women since John Webster wrote his play in the 1600s? What, for that matter, have we learned since #MeToo about the nature of that violence against women? The Duchess of Malfi unpacks the lengths a few crazed men will go to in order to control and manipulate a strong, decisive woman, who is widowed young and set on remarrying her steward. It leaves us with the feeling that the battle is still going, and it’s unclear how far we’ve come.
John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, first performed in 1614, gets the contemporary treatment at the Almeida. Or rather, it gets the Almeida treatment – I’m not the first to notice just how prevalent the Almeida aesthetic has become, a glass box on stage with projected text heralding the scene and a very Scandi-drama feel to the whole production.
Regardless, Rebecca Frecknall has created a rich and ferocious production, supported by a highly symbolic set designed by Chloe Lamford. It’s the Almeida treatment, done beautifully.
First thing’s first: Lydia Wilson is utterly perfect as the Duchess. She imbues every line, particularly as the tragedy and torture unfold, with just the right balance of authority and delicacy. The moments right before her death are the most engrossing, and as she utters the infamous, “I am the Duchess still” with such ease and grace, we have no question over her power. We are firmly on her side as she announces, “I am not mad” from within her torture chamber; she is measured, even in death. Fantastic too is Leo Bill as the troubled Daniel de Bossola; the death scene played between them is incredibly tense, violent, and yet with their bedroom-wear (beautiful grey and nude tones, her in a slip and him in what look like pyjamas – all costumes designed by Nicky Gillibrand), we have a sense of their intimacy in death. It is evocative, and beautifully done.
Though the glass box might well be becoming a cliché at this point (it’s not just the Almeida; glass boxes have made their appearances across stages lately, though ANNA at the National managed to make far more novel use of the device than many), it is used to striking effect.
The parallel of the set within the stage allows us a glimpse into the inner life of the Duchess that might otherwise never have been enunciated; the opportunity for contrast, to really deliver the tragic ending to full effect, is left very much at the hands of these scenes of domestic bliss, enacted from within the box. It also places us, the audience, squarely as the spies, adding to the difficulty and drama of the control being exerted on the Duchess. The glass box certainly has merit, and it is visually resonant, the lighting by Jack Knowles casting painterly qualities over the action. It’s a Renaissance feel regardless of all the modern theatrical trappings.
The box is used particularly well towards the end of the play, as the dead women remain within, watching over the unfolding action beyond their lives – keeping them around as spectres adds so much, particularly for the Duchess. Her power, even beyond life, is unmistakeable.
Some of these theatrical elements do start to crowd in on the production by the end, however, with the use of slow motion really the final straw. I, for one, will be happy to never see slow motion action used in a tragic scene of violence ever again. I also could have done without the block text projections; we don’t need to be told we’re about to see a murder, or a revelation – it’s a little patronising, ironically enough.
The main question for me, by the end of the play is what new understanding is brought on by staging this work in 2019? We already know the unending tragedy of how women have been treated at the hands of unreasonable men – though perhaps this serves as a good reminder for those who still haven’t got the memo. For me, the message is in the coda: as the Duchess’ orphaned daughter (a son in the original) tiptoes across stage, she inherits the scene, a poignant final moment and reminder that there are inheritors beyond this violence, and that women today continue to hold the mantle of fighting back against inequality.
Review by Christina Care
When the Duchess falls in love with her steward Antonio, her corrupt brothers embark on a chilling plot to destroy her marriage, power and agency. What begins as a jealous plan to extinguish her love becomes a bloodthirsty quest to extinguish her life.
CAST & CREATIVES
Direction Rebecca Frecknall
Design Chloe Lamford
Costume Nicky Gillibrand
Light Jack Knowles
Sound George Dennis
Casting Julia Horan CDG
Resident Director Sammy Glover
Fight Director Jonathan Holby
Resident Designer (Sound) Fizz Margereson
Resident Designer (Set) Amy Hayden-Wason
Resident Designer (Costume) Finlay Forbes Gower
Jersey Blu Georgia