Review: The Duchess of Malfi, York Theatre Royal

It takes a brave amateur theatre company to take on what is considered one of the greatest tragedies of English renaissance theatre. But the York Settlement Community Players are a company made of sterner stuff. A throwaway comment on their website mentions that in the 1950s a “local schoolgirl named Judi Dench” performed with the company before going to study at drama school. Armed with director Sam Taylor, who has acted with the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Com/pany, this is no ordinary amateur theatre, and suitably, they present no ordinary version of The Duchess of Malfi.

John Webster’s famous revenge tragedy is presented as a “modern-day thriller”, although the costumes seem to place it somewhere in the latter half of the twentieth century, with long skirts and high-waisted trousers. There are some bold staging choices, including banging on the back wall of the theatre alongside presenting monologues whilst facing away from the audience, but in the bare bones set in the theatre royal studio, it actually works quite well.

There are some bold acting choices too. I am especially impressed by the madness of Ferdinand, one of the Duchess’ vengeful brothers, played by Harry Revell. He has an uneasiness about him which seems to come very naturally to the actor, and it is taken to greater and greater extremes as Ferdinand loses his sanity. There is an interesting addition of music as an undertone for the characters’ emotions and at one point, Ferdinand’s internal monologue is played out loud as a 1960s love ballad while he slow-dances with his sister’s corpse. This extreme contrast makes for a very powerful scene.

In general, I am impressed by the power that a complex production can have in such a stripped-down set, with only two blocks in the centre to ground it. Taylor’s abridged version of the script intends to keep to the core of the story, and it works well with the emptiness of the space. But when the actors have to hold the stage alone, they sometimes struggle to fully engage the audience. There is something missing from the performance in this respect. Nevertheless, the production certainly succeeds as a thriller. It is hard to watch, especially towards the end, and it certainly brings out the extremes of love, betrayal and death. I left feeling incredibly moved and unsettled. This accomplished ensemble has created an almost primordial show of passion, madness and revenge.

The Duchess of Malfi is playing at the York Theatre Royal until 16 March. For more information and tickets, see the York Theatre Royal website.