June 15, 2024

The Duchess of Malfi at the Diorama Theatre, London

Unfortunately for evil brothers everywhere we no longer live in a time when you can kill someone and blame it on the plague. Quite right too, many would say, although probably not the Cardinal in the Duchess of Malfi, being performed now by Pell Mell Theatre at The New Diorama Theatre. Godly and righteous this clergyman is not, and as human nature has not changed John Webster’s 1612 play remains relevant as it illustrates the dangers of hypocrisy, domination, secrecy and revenge.

The duchess of Malfi has been widowed. Her brothers the duke and the cardinal ignore her wishes and decide she will not remarry. Unbeknown to them she marries her courtier Antonio anyway. When the brothers find out they don’t just shrug and hope that their sister will be happy. They take revenge – and not just by refusing to speak to Antonio or making snide comments.

The stage backdrop at the Diorama could be part of the underground set of The Third Man. A shadowy tunnel disappears into the distance like a sewer, speaking of racketeering and the evil that occurs when money is placed above life. The brothers may not be dealing in contaminated medicine like Harry Lime, but they have a similarly misguided world-view that believes only in status and wealth.

Lucy Laing’s duchess is strong and playful, boldly choosing her own husband and completely dominating Antonio. She is not perfect, she lies, she dissembles about her motives, is human. The play is named for her but here she is a mirror in which we see the effects of her brothers’ evil and hypocrisy. Her behaviour threatens her siblings and their actions warn of situations and countries that still exist where men are able to dominate women with little reproach. The freedom and power that she seemed to have only existed within very contained, male-controlled parameters.

Tom Blyth gives the duke an over-wound, mentally-wracked presence. Like an Egon Schiele portrait he twists, his hands clawing at the air or hidden angularly behind his back. His staccato delivery further adds to a splendid characterisation. Stephen MacNeice plays the brothers’  henchman Bosola with cheerful deceit, wearing trench coat and hat. When he crouches to read a private, discarded paper a contemporary tabloid journalist suddenly lands in seventeenth century Amalfi.

This Natalie York directed production is simply staged, with modern dress and diaphonous drapes delineating rooms and walls. These work better than the literal chains that appear to mark the duchess’s prison cell, but this is an engrossing production that recognises a contemporary relevance in the Jacobean horrors.

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