Preview: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is by no means an easy play to do well – its central character is the most complex of tragic heroines and its message open to much debate. I was thus interested to see what Jack Hackett and Tom Moyser would emphasise in their production. The answer? Very little. When I could hear the dialogue, which was rarely (the actors seemed entirely oblivious to the squeaking floorboards which drowned out much of the speech), it still felt more like a reading of the play than a performance. The actors were not for the most part untalented; they, and their performances, just seemed to lack direction.

Hannah Daly (as the title character) and Robert Williams (Ferdinand) put in the two best performances. Daly managed to endow the duchess with a (later tragic) dignity, even when ravenously devouring apricots in the late stages of pregnancy, and the clarity and passion of Williams’ words was a breath of fresh air for the audience. Though he should probably watch that his performance does not slip into melodrama in an attempt to counter the under-acting of some of those around him. Harriet Lebus’ death scene (as Julia) was also impressive – it was a pity that she had only a relatively minor part, since she could have greatly enhanced the production.

But in any performance of The Duchess of Malfi it is the presentation of the character of Bosola which is most important for the success of the production. Nik Higgins, however, was entirely inaudible for most of the preview, which verged on the comic when he was in conversation with actors who were in fact projecting. This was frustrating enough for someone who knew the plot – for an audience new to the play, being able to hear Bosola is key. Higgins’s quiet monotone was not the only annoying aspect of characterisation. The idea that Antonio (Jari Fawkes) and Delio (Lewis Godfrey) could only express their friendship through overly frequent ‘man hugs’ was slightly laughable. Many of the relationships lacked subtlety and so believability, making me painfully aware at all times that this was a student play.

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Performing the play in the Old Dining Room at Teddy Hall also seemed to create problems. There had clearly been little thought as to how to make the setting work to the play’s advantage (as the team behind Samson Agonistes managed so well in Merton chapel last week). It felt as if the play was being put on in a less than ideal space. The centrality of the duchess’s chair, framed by the elaborate panelling, was probably the one good design decision, but much of the time, design and script did not work together. For instance, Ferdinand’s sinister entrance into his sister’s bedroom was weak and anticlimactic, as he had to walk in through the audience, rather than appearing behind her. While limitations on entrances and exits are understandable, Ferdinand’s entrance from behind seemed like a basic and achievable requirement here.

All in all, the directors’ efforts seem to have gone into the mechanical necessities of putting on a play rather than any artistic vision. Some of the actors can obviously act and act well at times, despite a lack of unity, but they are let down by a watery production and one that adds little to the history of Webster in performance.

two stars

The Duchess of Malfi is at Teddy Hall, Sunday 7th March – Wednesday 10th, 7.30pm