'The Duchess of Malfi' review – Rachel Bagshaw's staging of this dark tale is a genuine sensation

Read our review of John Webster's tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, now in performances at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to 14 April.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Rachel Bagshaw leaps to the top ranks of classical directors with her entirely thrilling production of The Duchess of Malfi, which joins Othello in the 10th-anniversary season of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The Globe’s indoor space in fact opened its doors with this very play a decade ago, directed by then-artistic director Dominic Dromgoole and starring Gemma Arterton.

I saw that earlier production and can report that Bagshaw’s exists on an entirely different level, anchored not just by a stirring performance in the title role from Francesca Mills but by an ease towards this dense, dark Jacobean mainstay which delivers surprise after surprise throughout.

To start with, the entire text of John Webster’s gore-fest is projected throughout, enabling audiences to chart a path through a labyrinthine web of intrigue that reveals virtually everyone but the doomed Duchess in the most venal possible light. As events reach their chaotic climax, the language itself disintegrates, as if the basic rudiments of syntax hold no sway amidst the gathering depravity.

Performed in period, this version honours the 17th-century original whilst offering the occasional modern update. Rohypnol gets a name-check here, and references to “dermal filler” accord with an emphasis on appearance that tallies with the ever-grim spirit of the play if not its specific wording.

The plot posits levels of duplicity that make enemies out of everyone and portend ill for the Duchess, the young widow who wants merely to marry her steward, Antonio (Olivier Huband), and live in peace with their three children. Good luck with that. (The couple’s courtship is speedy even by the accelerated conventions of classical literature.)

Instead, their secret wedding enflames her psychotic brother Ferdinand (a terrifically demented turn from Oliver Johnstone) and prompts Antonio to flee for his safety – a plan of escape that the ever-watchful Bosola (Arthur Hughes), the play’s resident malcontent, is quick to impart so as to cause maximum distress.

Throw in a lascivious Cardinal (Jamie Ballard in aptly lip-smacking form) and a tableau vivant of death that turns out to be just another exercise in deception and you have a play fringed with malfeasance and mortality at every turn.

Small wonder TS Eliot famously wrote, with regard to Malfi, of Webster seeing “the skull beneath the skin”: this production makes doubly clear textual affinities not just to the death-fixated Hamlet, but to King Lear, Othello, and even Troilus and Cressida. It’s as if Webster had scanned the Shakespeare canon and cherry-picked images or phrases that suited his narrative best: hearing from the Duchess that “sad tales befit my woe” evokes Richard II with its “sad stories of the death of kings”.

Amidst the heightened emotions on display, Mills’s likeable Duchess avoids histrionics, shuttling neatly between the sparky lover seen near the start to a woman in full possession of her identity even as she soon after surrenders her life. The character’s signature remark “I am Duchess of Malfi still” here rings out with clarion, declarative force, her title uniquely hers all the way to a murder which the staging delivers with the requisite horror.

That rare play to continue on for some while after its title character has been dispatched, the writing glistens with unabashed cruelty (the allusion to the Duchess’s children as “beggarly brats”) that makes room for gallows humour as part of the tonal mix.

That, too, is handled with confidence by Bagshaw, a directorial ringmaster in control of a text as linguistically rapacious as might be expected from its embrace of lycanthropy: that's to say, a human believing himself to be a wolf. I wouldn’t wait 10 years to encounter another London Malfi of such quality. These “sad tales” are a genuine sensation.

The Duchess of Malfi is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse through 14 April. Book The Duchess of Malfi tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The Duchess of Malfi (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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