Offshoots (in association with Lancaster University Theatre Group) sets John Webster’s early 17th century classic in a film noir jazz bar, with a live band that works well, though the initial entrance song blared far too loudly – a pity given that the singer was impressive and handled a narration role with confidence. This, though, was the first show of the run and technical teething problems may be righted – some of the light changes seemed strange as well, but mostly these aptly created smoky or bleak atmosphere. Costume suited period and reflected bar staff, band and privileged patrons, though the Duchess’ red gown, a splash of vibrant colour that made design sense, impeded movement.
Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi tells of a widowed Duchess marrying despite her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, telling her never to take a second husband. She weds her steward Antonio and keeps the marriage secret, but they have children. A spy of her brothers, Bosola, knows of the children but it is years before he discovers who the father is. This discovery leads to torture, madness and the death of all characters mentioned, bar a son of the Duchess (not shown in this production).
With this version, more than technical adjustments are needed. Most glaringly, few of the actors hold in their minds the driving thought behind each lengthy sentence, so a lack of variation and understanding destroys meaning that is very necessary as the setting and cuts have left a lot unclear. Confusion surrounds location references (cut them if you‘re not using them), what happens to the Duchess’ family and, amazingly, the actual tortures Ferdinand visits on his sister, though the faceless, over-coated figures have a fine aura of menace before this pointless movement piece.
Antonio, once warmed up, had some understanding of feeling and meaning and Ferdinand would do very well if his words were not often obscured for lack of articulation. The Duchess herself never moved beyond a state of (somewhat sullen) dignity, not because she fought to retain dignity, as would be appropriate, but through a lack of depth. Her lady, Cariola, seemed most in tune with feelings, though lost that with her final lines. The Cardinal had presence and style, but again no through-thought to make sense of his words. Bosola, a most intriguing character who has his own ideas of right and wrong, suffers from the same problems of delivery, and his voice is especially flat (if this is an acting choice, it is an unfortunate one that does not help the play), but he does maintain a decent presence, combining menace with an underlying sadness and understanding. One who showed potential, having a light ease with Webster’s language in a single, early, brief speech then spoke no more, banished to a faceless over-coated role.
Overall, Malfi is an ambitious resetting that has some fine live music and song, and a few interestingly staged visuals, but it has not been adapted clearly and needs actors more suited to the demands of its language.
22 – 27 August, 11:05 (12:05) @ Bedlam Theatre