What an exciting experience it is to bear witness to the first production housed in the new, indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, which opened this month. This theatre has set in motion Wanamaker’s vision of fully capturing and exploring the dramatic practice of Shakespeare’s time, especially as artificial lighting is not used. Instead, the audience is treated to a room cloaked in darkness, but for the unsettling and atmospheric flickering of candles which hang above the stage.
There probably couldn’t have been a better introduction to this new space than a staging of John Webster’s dark tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi. Plagued by incest, murder and infanticide, lust and heartbreak, this 1613 play is one of the most celebrated, and the heroine herself, who is driven to insanity by the cruel and twisted actions of her twin brother Ferdinand, is one of the greatest roles of that particular period. A play also shrouded in mystery and suspicion, the lack of imposing lighting only contributed to a feeling of involvement in the events occurring on the stage.
Sitting in the playhouse isn’t entirely unlike travelling back in time to when the play was first performed. The space is round and appears long and thin, whilst seats aren’t exactly seats, rather carpeted benches, ensuring you are a tad intimate with your neighbour. The public can also choose to stand and watch the action from the very back, which only heightens the authentic feel of being part of something wonderfully historic.
Gemma Arterton takes on the lead role with passion and with a burning sexual energy that, initially, doesn’t make her entirely likeable. Her superiority over the people in her court is made obvious and she acts with something of a flicker of disdain, even towards new husband Antonio. However it is apparent that the stage is where Arterton feels most comfortable and thus every utterance, every step she takes, is a deliberate part of creating the exact character she wishes to portray, and it really does work.
Though one could argue that this is Arterton’s show, she is matched if not slightly overshadowed down by David Dawson’s Ferdinand. Essentially the ‘baddie’ in The Duchess of Malfi, he, for me, evokes the most pity. Quite obviously a violently damaged individual, he lusts after his twin sister and is driven insane with longing and jealousy when she bears another man’s children. It is the far off distracted looks into the audience and tense, jerky movements that show from the outset that he is finely tuned into the character. It is after the murder of his sister, which he permitted, that he goes stark raving mad with melancholy, and we see something quite special and a little bit scary as he races up to various members of the audience muttering inaudibly, convinced he is a wolf.
Though British theatre originating during this period isn’t always my sort of thing, I can still appreciate how good this is. Arterton is a fine actress. Dawson is excellent and hopefully will continue to dish out performances as powerful as this one.
The Duchess of Malfi is playing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 16 February 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Shakespeare Globe website.