REVIEW: Duchess of Malfi
Gorgeous acting, gorgeous colours, everything was beautiful.
A delightful-looking play with some pacing problems, but well worth the price of entry.
The play opens with a laundry-like pre-play bit where the chorus members folded sheets, and have the lovers tiptoe their way through in a very sweet and human set piece. The chorus all cuddled up on the stage was a nice way to add to the set, even if I didn’t quite get why they were there. Kate Marston as the Duchess and Joe Sefton as Antonio played a very sweet and convincing couple, if occasionally lacking in depth during the more dramatic scenes.
In the beginning, they built up a convincing romance in order to garner the required sympathy. However, the zenith of their performances were reached in the scenes with the children. Occasionally, the formal Jacobean speeches sounded a bit stilted and unrehearsed, but everyone excelled when interacting with the children.
Part of a larger trend in Cambridge theatre is that often the characters in more minor roles are more intriguing and better played than the leads. This was the case here, with the breakaway cast of side-characters really stealing the show. Sabrina Gilby as Bosola was perhaps one of the breakout characters in the play. Her delivery and register were superb, and brought a great realism to the gender-flipped role.
Joseph Tyler-Todd as the Cardinal was disturbing and terrifying, leaving the audience squirming as he killed his wife. Helen Vella Taylor did a lot with a little with Julia, playing well off Tyler-Todd. I felt her scenes with Gilby lacked chemistry, which was a shame as I approved the integration of a lesbian relationship in this setting.
Ben Walsh as Ferdinand was the perfect balance of creepy and conniving. I honestly can’t say I could have picked a better actors for one of the most disturbing roles in the play. His death scene was one of the best pieces in a play which offered hit after hit of well-acted, well-directed sequences. My only criticism is often the scenes would play out well, and then lose all the energy they had built up, leaving the audience without the emotional payoff that would have pushed this play over the edge.
The best thing about this play were the aesthetic choices which were made in it. The set and lighting and costumes were so gorgeous it was like a visual bakery. It’s rare to see something where there’s so much beauty in a stage. Noah Fram’s lighting in particular gave the play a wonderful feel by its usage of colour, and the trick with the exposed bulbs to mirror rising tension was a neat touch.
Also, Toby Molyneux and Leah Ward‘s use of levels in their set design added to the storytelling, and the shadow work near the end when the Duchess is imprisoned, and the wonderful shocking twist on that plays a game of pulling you into the play and ripping you to pieces (not unlike the set itself).
Finally, a word must be said for the musicians who did an amazing job of bringing Gary Rushton’s score to life. The music really drove home the mood of the play, and gave the chorus something wonderful to move to in the pieces of physical theatre. My only issue was that there wasn’t more of it during the scene changes, often finishing before the stage managers had finished getting the set into position.
Had it been more in-sync, we might have seen the play flow in a much more comfortable style.