Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Arts & Lit Review: The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker

Review: The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker

Paris Gill reviews The Duchess of Malfi, as directed by Rachel Bagshaw, which took the stage at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
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Image: Normann via Flickr

The Duchess of Malfi was a fitting production to watch on International Women’s Day. The season commemorates the 10th anniversary of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s opening, and comes a decade after the original production here of the John Webster play directed by Dominic Dromgoole. This one, directed by Rachel Bagshaw, is just as formidable. 

An energetic opening sequence of a masquerade dance to Scissor Sisters introduces the main characters in stunning vibrancy. The play is peppered throughout with modern references that sparked grim laughter across the audience. An added line referencing MP James Cleverly’s comments for the secret to a long marriage, for example, succeeded in setting the overall dark comedy tone of the misogyny that plagues the women in Malfi. 

Francesca Mills as the Duchess is a stroke of genius. Always a challenge for actors who marry in Act One, Mills’s chemistry with Olivier Huband as Antonio brings an incredible display of sensuality and bursting care for each other, with of course the original script’s emphasis on the “lightness” of each other’s characters aiding the emotion. 

The Sam Wanamaker is the perfect setting for a Jacobean tragedy. Having seen Doctor Faustus here some years ago, I was anticipating the unique candlelight techniques the production would be utilising. I was not disappointed. The scene of Ferdinand’s gift of the severed hand occurs in pure darkness as Webster intended, as does the Duchess’s noble imprisonment. 

The Sam Wanamaker is the perfect setting for a Jacobean tragedy

Aiding the candlelit tricks of light was the selective use of the projector for modern effects the play thrived among. Alongside the fully captioned play, with the script projected at all times, was an emphasis on the harmful and overwhelming impact of words and thoughts alone. Early in Act One, the Cardinal’s mistress Julia is horrifically bombarded by the male ensemble’s sexual harassment “jokes”, which are displayed in a swirling chaos of white text behind her. 

A poignant scene with the projected comments is the madmen scene. In a similar tone to the original production where the madmen encircle the Duchess and Cariola spewing insults, in this 2024 interpretation the comments ranged from “Women belong to men” to “She was asking for it”. The two women’s solidarity in this scene acquires a moving touch with the pause they take to breathe with each other after the men leave. 

Sisterhood overall is the heroine of Bagshaw’s The Duchess of Malfi. Cariola’s stark loyalty to the Duchess even after her death, staged through her physical defiance and horrific screams, represents the desperation for women in the 17th and 21st centuries to care for each other in a dangerous patriarchal world. 

The message of Bagshaw’s production draws a bleak realisation that the treatment of women across these 400 years has changed by a shockingly small amount. The constant misogynistic comments and explicit abuse of women throughout The Duchess of Malfi is a dismal reminder to the audience of the perils of women’s survival in “a world of princes”.

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