The Duchess of Malfi

Critics' choice
1/5
© Mark Douet
2/5
© Mark Douet

James Gamon (Cardinal) and Gemma Arterton (The Duchess)

3/5
© Mark Douet

Gemma Arterton (The Duchess)

4/5
© Mark Douet
5/5
© Mark Douet

It would be really embarrassing for starlet Gemma Arterton if her big return to the theatre was upstaged by a candelabra. Fortunately it isn’t. Nonetheless, it’d be stretching it to say she was more the star of this Webster revival than the singular venue it’s in – the Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Based upon Jacobean sketches, the Playhouse is distinguished by tremendous intimacy – the acoustics are wonderful – and a most striking lighting system. It’s entirely lit by candles, which are carried in candelabras by actors and mounted in chandeliers that are raised, lowered, extinguished and relit as the evening progresses. For a play as chokingly gloomy as Webster’s bloody yarn of a noblewoman destroyed by the jealousy of her brothers, the ability to dim the room to ever more Stygian levels of guttering light is a weapons-grade atmospheric aid, one that director Dominic Dromgoole exploits fully.

It’s ravishing, but I do have one gripe: the chandeliers were at a level where they blocked the actors’ faces, for around 5 percent of the time, if watching from the balcony. It didn’t really bother me, but once the novelty of the room wears off, it might. It may be an authentic experience, but if you’re committed to seeing the faces of the cast, consider the stalls.

Speaking of the cast: Arterton has made some bewildering screen choices but she always acquits herself well on stage, and this is no exception. She gives the doomed Duchess a Marilyn Monroe-ish flirtatiousness – charismatic and noble but not school ma’am virtuous; she knows what she’s doing when she woos her steward Antonio (Alex Waldmann) with a succession of breathy little squeaks.

Sean Gilder is excellent as quietly intense hitman Bosula – he especially benefits from the room’s acoustics, delivering his many asides in a crystal-clear murmur. David Dawson is scene-stealingly good as the Duchess’s brother Ferdinand, thin, feverish and fey, cowed by and filled with lust for his confident sibling.

This revival doesn’t amount to anything as monolithically devastating as the Old Vic’s 2012 production with Eve Best, but this isn’t the place for bombast. It wreaks an intimate, sensual sort of devastation that I can’t imagine being conjured anywhere else. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse should be no candelabra in the wind.

By Andrzej Lukowski

Average User Rating

4 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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polly

Back knackering bench aside, the theatre is lush, heady & blissfully painted. Candles give a quite perky light at full trhrottle & candelabrae winch up & down like express lifts. That aside, up to the Duchess' death , it's a close & clever production. Gemma Arterton excels as the eponymous heroine, except for underreacting to her 'dead' husband & son, Ferdinand (David Dawson) is sufficiently creepy & deeply worrying, and Bosola mainly convinces. I didn't love the music, but the last jig was very moving somehow when everyone came back to life, smiled and danced. The madmen, often done in an embarrassing & ludicrous way, were rather touching, and their dance beautiful.