‘The Duchess of Malfi’ review

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
5 out of 5 stars
The Duchess of Malfi, Almeida, 2019
Photograph: Marc Brenner Lydia Wilson and Leo Bill

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

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Lydia Wilson is a phenomenal Duchess in Rebecca Frecknall’s revelatory rewiring of Webster’s gory tragedy

Because there is no benevolent god, the actor Lydia Wilson is not yet a household name. But following her incandescent turn as a scheming Kate Middleton in ‘King Charles III’, she has returned to the Almeida to collect some serious dues, and has turned in a proper performance of the year in the title role of Rebecca Frecknall’s deeply humane revival of John Webster’s bloody ‘The Duchess of Malfi’.

At the start, her widowed duchess is genteel and likeable, a charismatic posh woman who cheerily refuses to be cowed by the machinations of her villainous brothers Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) and The Cardinal (Michael Marcus). Unusually for productions of the 1613 play, the trio start off looking at ease with each other, like an actual family. Perhaps the duchess’s understandable refusal to view these siblings as sociopaths is her downfall. It leads to her daring to woo her deeply flustered clerk Antonio (Khalid Abdalla), who is terrified of the consequences, but ultimately powerless, like a sheep swept up by a tornado.

By the end, Wilson is like a fire on your retinas: as her brothers and their henchman Bosola (Leo Bill) tread an ever-darker path, she faces them down like a creature of pure flame, every line of Webster’s verse a flare of dazzling defiance, her wild charisma threatening to blast them off the stage. Words that read like despair on the page are delivered with imperious defiance on stage.

It is a truly singular performance, although huge credit must go to Frecknall’s direction. This is her third show for the Almeida. Her first, a take on Tennessee Williams’s semi-obscure ‘Summer and Smoke’, was a revelation, in which as much as anything she bought a towering sense of empathy to bear on the characters, and ‘corrected’ some of the tawdry melodrama and ugly misogyny in the text. Her second, a take on ‘Three Sisters’, was lovely, but perhaps Chekhov’s play was already too tender and human to really benefit from the Frecknall treatment.

But ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ really does. It’s a popular play, but it’s also a near-horror nasty, the story of a decent woman whose dreams are bloodily squished by the selfish and perverse machinations of a group of men. Frecknall can’t make it into a happy story. But she can take the luridity out, and she can find ways – which I shall not go into – to make Wilson’s duchess the dominant figure on stage, right up until the very end. She’s fundamentally a victim, but she never looks like one. 

Beyond Wilson’s conflagratory central turn, there’s a taut, thriller-ish modern-dress production, in which half of the action occurs in a glass tank covering what looks like a gym changing room for some reason. It’s a somewhat cryptic set from Chloe Lamford – especially the spatter of blood that mysteriously appears on it in the first half – but it works. The tank is initially representative of the hidden inner sanctum where the duchess must hide huge chunks of her life; later its glass walls eerily stand in for the veil of death.

And it has an exceptionally strong ensemble cast: Bill is excellent as the wily Bosola, a quick-witted mercenary doing what he needs to get by. Even in his darkest moments there is a tinge of morality to him, and he ultimately finds himself overwhelmed by the cruelty of his masters’ scheming. Riddiford is a terrific Ferdinand: often productions have him ‘go mad’ late on, but it’s clear from his sickly, burning-eyed performance that he is deeply unwell from the start. The vile plottings aren’t exactly excused, but the fact Ferdinand is clearly seriously struggling with his mental health takes some of the malevolence out of the story, and the incest vibes are certainly turned down. There’s also great work from Marcus as a slick shit of a cardinal, and Abdalla, whose awkward, cuddly, not-especially-heroic Antonio is a nice bit of casting against type and a great foil to Wilson’s intensely elegant duchess.

This is a fresh, urgent ‘Malfi’, a counter and corrective to the grimmer clichés around this play, but also one that uplifts Webster’s work. And all this without radical monkeying with the text. Indeed, Frecknall’s one really overt change is to flip the gender of the duchess and Antonio’s eldest child, who is now a daughter. It leaves the final image of the play a young woman standing alone on stage, a hope for a better future beyond the schemes of these ghastly men.

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