The Duchess of Malfi: Webster’s Disturbing Tale of Control & Revenge

Saturday 9th March 2019 at York Theatre Royal (Studio).

⭐️⭐️⭐️

John Webster’s The Duchess Of Malfi is a bit of a titan and York Settlement Community Players do a great job of bringing its most gripping moments of dramatic power to life.

It’s impossible to experience this play without our current social and political climate guiding responses. It’s a play which only feels dated in language; the subject matter is glaringly relevant in the possessive approach to the female protagonist and the female body which dominates this play and which in turn makes for what can only be described as highly antagonistic viewing.

The Duchess Of Malfi is a Jacobean revenge tragedy which looks at the disturbing vice grip two brothers have on their newly widowed sister. They’ve decided that she shouldn’t marry again and they’re so hell-bent on making her chastity a certainty that they go to extreme lengths by any era’s standards. The Duchess nonetheless falls in love, marries secretly (beneath her class no less) and conceives. From there all is rage, manipulation, revenge and chaos.

Amanda Dales is a worthy lead in the title role. She offers the greatest variety to the production and is entirely credible in the various challenging stages of her character’s tragic story. She is particularly impressive in later scenes as the Duchess courts total desolation but with a dignified underlying hope for the future. David Phillipps is a great match for Dales as the Duchess’ second, secret husband Antonio. The pair depict a believable attachment despite the haste and their performances are the basis for some of the best scenes in this production. 

The Duchess is plagued by two bitter and increasingly twisted brothers, the first being The Cardinal (Paul French), a corrupt character preaching religion but bedding married women (Shona Read Lang) behind the smoke screen of his Bible and crucifix. The more dangerous brother is the Duchess’ twin, Ferdinand (Harry Revell). 

While French plays The Cardinal with a fittingly imperious air, it is Revell’s Ferdinand who shines as he takes the lead in punishing the Duchess for her perceived wayward actions. He gives an energised performance as a man obsessively and aggressively attached to his sister’s chastity and portrays Ferdinand’s spiralling story with great venom. The dramatic scene of ‘the last dance’ is inspired and Revell and Dales do a wonderful job of playing a brilliantly conceived moment which is clearly a complex scene to perform.

The story features one additional villain whose soul and story are not so clearly defined as those of the brothers. Maurice Crichton rises nicely to the challenge of playing the catastrophically duplicitous Bosola who manipulates and digs for the duration until he is faced with the realities of his actions. 

The Duchess of Malfi is a dark story with a potential for light comedy entirely in the hands of an actor’s delivery. Director Sam Taylor doesn’t much entertain the light side here, instead depicting Malfi as a story of manipulative intensity. Graham Sanderson (Lighting) and Dr Jake Benjamin (Sound) significantly contribute to the pervading sense of impending danger and doom through ever shifting dramatic lighting and well selected musical scoring for some of the more emotive speeches. 

There are drawbacks to this production though. The central action is portrayed with impressive gravity and the central performances are both credible and for the most part gripping and intense. But all of this dramatic power is bookended by underwhelming build-ups, lengthy establishing scenes and an unconvincing finale of a gruesome bloodbath. The most intense scenes are beautifully done, with the fiery exchanges between the Duchess, Ferdinand and Antonio being particularly impressive, but that quality of performance does not extend across the whole production unfortunately.

Webster’s work is full of lyrical beauty, often with the most intensely unpleasant moments being accompanied by some of the most brilliantly crafted verse. Webster is unflinching in his unrestrained and brutal depiction of the disturbing capabilities of the corrupted human in its beastliest form. The central cast of this production capture all of that corrupt, disturbing intensity with great force and they give performances well worth seeing.

The Duchess Of Malfi plays at York Theatre Royal until March 16th 2019 and you can find tickets here.

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