To quote T.S. Elliot, “Webster was much possessed by death”, and in Eyestrings production of perhaps his greatest play The Duchess of Malfi, death is very much present. It is a shocking mix of the blackest comedy, evil characters and beautifully written verse. Director Owen Horsley and designer Simon Anthony Wells have worked hard to create a bold interpretation of this classic, dragging it into a more modern time, although the use of both a gramophone and credit cards left me a bit unsure of exactly when. However, The White Bear theatre was a perfect setting for darkness of the play. The small studio theatre, with hanging bare light blubs was the ideal intimate space, allowing us as the audience to watch the downfall of such a powerful family close up – and there were moments when it felt all too close for comfort.
The performances themselves were a bit of a mixed bag. Kelly Hotten as The Duchess was superb; witty and charming, she was very much a modern woman trying desperately to live a life outside the restraints of a patriarchal society. Orlando James, playing her corrupt twin brother Ferdinand, pushed his performance to the edge, showing Ferdinand’s descent into madness with a truth that made an almost over-the-top portrayal terrifyingly real. On the other hand, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Philip Cairns was holding too much back in his performance of Bosola. While I connected in some way to all the other characters, for some reason he felt distant and almost too tame for this interruption of the play.
Much credit must be given to lighting designer Daniel Street and sound designer Helen Atkinson. With such a small space they managed to create a wonderfully cruel and dark world. The use of a fifties style hand-held microphone was a genius way of creating the whispers of ghosts and tool for showing the corrupt power of the bothers as they command Bosola to murder person after person. The terrifying climax of the play occurs as the whole theatre is plunged into darkness – while I have never been afraid of the dark, it was enough to make me more than a little nervous. Horsley has managed to keep the point between a naturalistic performance and moments of a more stylized approach in prefect balance throughout the play, something that I have often seen production fall short on.
One structural downfall of the play as a text, is that the murder of The Duchess occurs before the end of act four, so the rest of the play feels a little like a sped up episode of Midsummer Murders. None of the deaths that follow quite live up the tragic courage shown by The Duchess as she hands her child over to her companion Cariola (played by Charlotte Powell) to await her own death.
Eyestrings have pushed The Duchess of Malfi to its absolute limit. Just stopping oh-so-short of becoming a too chaotic performance, it was electrifying and beautifully real.
The Duchess of Malfi is running at The White Bear Theatre until 30 September. For more information and tickets, see the White Bear Theatre website.