• Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


The Duchess of Malfi

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

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


£10-£60. Runs 3hrs
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