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The Duchess of Malfi

  • Theatre, Drama
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
The Duchess of Malfi, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2024
Photo: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A phenomenal title turn from Francesca Mills powers this accessible, PG-rated take on Webster’s dark tragedy

Francesca Mills is luminous in the title role of this sadistic thriller by Shakespeare’s young contemporary, John Webster. It’s thrilling to see this exceptional actress in something more challenging than comic and minor bits; good also that director Rachel Bagshaw does not try to weave Mills’s dwarfism into the production but lets her talent shine. Mills speaks blank verse immaculately and emotionally, her voice often shimmering on the edge of laughter or tears. Directors should be queueing up to cast her in a big Shakespearean role where she can really spread her wings.

Webster’s plays are more lurid and less subtle than Shakespeare’s. Boil down the plots and they sound like something Joey Tribbiani would star in: in this one, the Duchess’s evil twin torments and destroys her and her babies because he is so jealous of her secret marriage. It's driven by transgressive, incestuous desires and deals in plotting, sneaky sex and snooping; what's done in the shadows.

Intimate, lit only by candles or, for one nightmarish central scene, plunged into darkness – ‘Malfi’ was designed for a theatre exactly like the Sam Wanamaker. Indeed, the Globe’s indoor playhouse first opened its doors with a production ten years ago.  he hefty 17-strong production team includes two Intimacy Directors and a Candle Consultant, so I was expecting something quite spicy. The candles were genuinely exciting, casting a mottled, trembling light over the inevitable descent to torture, madness and murder. But there's a vein of spiritual and sexual horror in the play which this clear, SFW production doesn’t really get down and dirty with. 

The excellent Arthur Hughs brings a sinuous self-loathing style to Bosola, the hitman hired to kill the Duchess. But I missed something in her relationship with the two men who pay his wages, her brothers (played by Jamie Ballard and Oliver Johnstone). We're building up to some sadistic stuff in the second half, and it needs nastier, more compulsive motivation.

The best dramas in English were written 400-odd years ago and it’s the job of the Globe and the Wanamaker to play them in something like their original setting. That job gets harder every year; they are taught less at schools, and their language is leaving us. Actors also have to be translators – so they resort to Speaking Every Word Slowly With Equal Emphasis, and literally miming out the metaphors, with deadening effect. So kudos to Bagshaw and co for their ‘creative captions’ - which sounds like something dreary disguised as something arty, but are actually the opposite.

Contemporary audiences didn't have the benefit of a rhetorical education - but we are highly trained double-screeners, and the creative captions harness this talent to help decode old plays, with the scripted words appearing on the walls of the set as they’re spoken, so you can read and watch simultaneously. Bagshaw uses these projections to bring off one of the play’s weirdest, most dated scenes quite brilliantly: as four madmen rant at the Duchess, the script breaks and random words and phrases scurry all over the walls and floor, tattooing everything in a storm of overwhelming digital noise. 

Accessibility is the watchword for this production, which adds judicious lashings of contemporary music, language, style and technology. It’s mostly successful, though occasionally overdoes it – I’m not sure what’s gained by updating snatches of sexist jokes to include Rohypnol references. The thoughtful casting and direction iron out the kinks in an extremely twisted tale. I’d have preferred more perversity, less accessibility. But it is well-made, a solid setting for a radiant star. Mills’ delicacy and grace illuminate its dark corners, and add memorable lustre to an otherwise straightforward production.

Written by
Caroline McGinn


£5-£62. Runs 2hr 40min
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