The Duchess of Malfi @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

To be honest, I had very extremely low expectations for this performance of Webster’s play. The reviews I read were not that great, and critics were saying the indoor playhouse was just a museum piece and the play was poor. People on my course, who went to see the play weeks before me, mentioned how they couldn’t see the actors at all, and what they could see was skewed by the candles. Oh, and they mentioned Gemma Arterton’s breasts a lot.  I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised by the performance. It really is quite good.

The play is about the Duchess of Malfi, a widow, who wishes to marry her lover Antonio. Her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, do not like this idea, and force their spy Bosola to find out more about what the Duchess plans to do. When Bosola discovers that the Duchess has secretly married Antonio and has had a child, the two brothers seek revenge which can only end in tragedy.

Photo: Globe

There is no doubt that Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a perfect play to open the new Jacobean-style indoor playhouse with. Lighting plays a significant role in specific scenes of the play, and actually, these scenes were some of the best parts of the performance. All the candles are put out for the trick Ferdinand plays on his sister, leaving the whole theatre in darkness, so the audience experiences the unease and fear the Duchess is experiencing on stage. Arterton portrays the Duchess well, encompassing her strong and passionate character. When the Duchess is imprisoned, Arterton is able to keep her composed and regal even at her lowest. I think David Dawson is cast well as the Ferdinand, as he looks slimy and is very unlikeable, and he has a stupid laugh. He portrays Ferdinand’s incestuous feelings towards his sister very well, but he was shouty at times which is quite uncomfortable to listen to because the space is so small.

Photo: Globe

I really enjoyed the performance because The Duchess of Malfi is one of my favourite plays. What I found annoying however was the way the audience reacted to certain things, which made me feel like I was missing something, but I know I was not. The ending of the play is a tragedy, and the stage is filled with dead characters while a young boy literally stands in the centre of it all. There is nothing funny about this. So why were people laughing? I really hope that wasn’t Dominic Dromgoole’s intention, otherwise I definitely did miss something.

Photo: Guardian

I think you should see this performance, but you should also be prepared to pay slightly more to see it properly. The £10 standing tickets are cheaper than the cheapest seats which are £25, but they do make a huge difference to how you experience the action. If you’re sitting in the upper gallery you can see what is going on, and although you might be blocked by some candles at different points, you can at least see the actors. If you pay to stand, you get to listen to the whole play, and you’re blessed with the view down Arterton’s top for the first couple of acts. It’s your choice really.


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