The Duchess of Malfi

A script ill-managed, a play ill-acted. MATILDA WNEK is murdered by monotony.

clare mohan Howard Theatre James Barwise Mighty Players The Duchess of Malfi Webster

Howard Theatre, 24th-26th February, £4-5

Directed by Clare Rivers Mohan


We’re pretty spoilt in Cambridge. Usually when plays go badly it’s the result of over-ambition; an experiment that didn’t pay off. It’s been so long since I’ve seen one like The Duchess of Malfi, just disappointingly poor.

There are two obvious difficulties with Webster’s play: the florid language with its incessant extended metaphors, and the repetitious narrative. Neither were well-managed. The former demands vigorous cuts (de rigueur these days) – only a very strong production can hold the audience’s attention for two and a half hours of revenge tragedy. This might have allowed the actors to have some patience with their lines, and given them space to make the metaphors sound like ideas rather than laboured and unnatural circumlocution that can only be accommodated under a single cycle of intonation.

It is hard not to sound contrived when everything has to be related to birds or glowworms or the habits of woman, and it does slow the action down, but the response isn’t just to plough through them. They should have been excited by the language, and made it exciting by embracing the elaboration, rather than trying to subsume it under the umbrella of naturalism.

Particularly because naturalism appeared to be well out of most actors’ ranges. It really wasn’t well-performed, which was disappointing, since it felt that for the most part they could have been a lot better. There was a huge amount of energy onstage, but the lack of engagement was really limiting. The physical relationships were bizarre: it looked like the Duchess was trying to smother Antonio (Oliver Marsh) in their bed embrace, and the sinisterly sexual advances of Ferdinand (James Barwise) on his sister were batted away with a mild embarrassment better-suited to the lumbering lunge of a drunk friend at a party.

Barwise was the paradigm of the tonal rut which most of the performers struggled with, and of the lack of support the cast gave each other. His mad rantings were dismissed with a comical eye-roll by both the Duchess and her brother, which left the flamboyant and eccentric ravings utterly without weight; ultimately absurd. And at that point I lose interest: given that the whole action stems from one brothers’ jealousy – a weak basis at best – we need to at least be watching the credible tyrannous cruelty of an obsessive, or I’m not really sure what the point is. His decision to go so ridiculously over-the-top in the first half also meant his descent into madness was barely a contrast, vitiating its dramatic power entirely.

Photographs by Milla Basma

The repetitious plot was compensated for equally weakly. The final scene had no suspense, and, apart from the precipitating strangling, the plentiful murders had no dramatic impact. This was partly because the motivations were unclear. Bosola (Lewis Macdonald) needed to do a lot more work to realise his characters’ decision-making process. His lines bespeak an inner turmoil which only surfaced in the most explicit mentions. The contrast between the acquiescent dialogues where he accepts the bribes to murder, and guilt-ridden monologues immediately after his interlocutor exited became comical, and, worse still, predictable.

This play is built around routine: cycles of emphasis, sequences of blocking, repeated patterns of dialogue-monologue. It would be almost impossible to keep up momentum and interest for the full stretch unless every directorial decision was designed to maximise the bloody excitement of Webster’s bloody narrative. Realistically, it’s a trade-off; but this production had neither realism nor high excitement: no music to create atmosphere, no attempt to create variation between the roughly equivalent scenes.

I felt sorry for the performers having to work against the grandeur of the Howard Theatre, whose luscious red curtains and painted balconies suggested a gravity the performance just didn’t have. Maybe that’s what made it seem so pitiful, and indeed my neighbour suggested that, had this been at Corpus, you might have found it really dramatic. I’m not sure; but this play should have been a violent tornado mediated through fantastically elaborate language, instead of a bleak gust that murders by monotony.