Review: The Duchess of Malfi – a brave and ambitious move

York Settlement Community Players present an ambitious take on the Webster classic

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A man and woman embrace against a blue background
Photographer: Sam Taylor

Notorious for being bloody and demanding, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1612) is not an obvious choice for an amateur group to perform. However, York Settlement Community Players (of which Judi Dench was a member in the 1950s) proved largely up to the task. With a pared down plot and modern dress, Sam Taylor (RSC and National Theatre actor) directs an accessible, fast-paced and engaging rendition of the ultimate Renaissance revenge tragedy in the intimate studio space of York Theatre Royal.

At the heart of this play are the themes of class and men’s control over women – their lives, finances, sexuality, relationships. While Antonio, confidently played by David Phillipps, is cast as a romantic class warrior, his received pronunciation and smart attire – equal to that of the rich brothers, the Cardinal and Duke – obscured the class distinctions underlying their animosity towards him. That said, however, their interdict against marriage is absolute, irrespective of social status. The Renaissance imagination presented the Duchess, played in an understated manner by Amanda Dales, as a ‘lusty widow.’ Her secret remarriage to her lower-class steward Antonio, against her brothers’ will and below her rank, made her culpable of excessive sexual desire and deserving of death.

The relationship between the titular Duchess and Antonio was convincing. However, the sexual politics were somewhat lost with the ‘forbidden lovers’ element being overemphasised to a Romeo and Juliet level.  While this interpretation liberated the Duchess from the sexist ‘lusty widow’ label, at times she seemed too passive – a far cry from the radical warrior of patriarchal sexual liberation and self-determination, who was so intimidating to her over-controlling brothers that they killed her. Dales’ scenes of imprisonment, torture (both physical and psychological) and death by strangulation on stage are her most stoically impressive, with the famous line, “I am Duchess of Malfi still,” asserting her right to exist independently in a quiet, self-possessed manner. Music was masterfully employed in the aftermath of the Duchess’ murder by strangulation on the orders of her psychotic twin brother (Ferdinand, the Duke), as he slow dances with her corpse to The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’. The carefree, psychedelic, daydreamlike quality of The Beach Boys’ music was sharply juxtaposed with the nightmarish tragedy of the scene presented on stage. The dissonance was positively chilling: the most haunting, powerful moment of the play.

Ferdinand’s incestuous desire for his twin sister the eponymous, but individually anonymous, Duchess was strongly realised. Uncomfortably close touching, inappropriately sexualised dancing and lecherous looks hinted at Ferdinand’s dark sexual feelings. In his scenes of madness and grief after his orders to kill his sister are acted upon, Harry Revell came into his own as Ferdinand. He dominated the emotional heart of the play, although his character was in the running for the hotly contested title of the most morally reprehensible. He commanded the attention of the audience whenever he was on stage. Revell’s demeanour revealed the true psychopathic nature of the brothers and their obsessive desire to control their sister’s sexual autonomy. However, while the portrayal of Ferdinand as a warped incestuous monster explained his actions, those of the Cardinal were less clear. Furthermore, the Duchess was portrayed almost too innocently and Ferdinand’s madness excessively accentuated. This lost some of the layers of interpretation, particularly men’s domination of women to preserve their own power for power’s sake.

Despite the play’s clear place within the canon of Renaissance tragedy, there were lighter, comic moments in The Duchess of Malfi, most notably in the form of Bosola, the servant spy placed by the brothers in the Duchess’ court. Maurice Crichton’s frank Yorkshire delivery and ease of command of the language accentuated the sexual innuendo. Whilst Bosola is frequently compared by literary critics to Iago, YSCP’s interpretation allowed for a more human, emotionally fraught and complicated antagonist to emerge.  

Sadly, the final scene was distinctly underwhelming. In a culmination of betrayal and violence, everyone dies, whether by kissing a poisoned bible or by being stabbed. Webster has set the scene for an orgy of bloodletting akin to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, but the lack of any blood or visual effects to suggest the horror was anticlimactic: there’s only so much that writhing bodies alone can convey. Whilst a tight budget may have restricted this scene, creative alternatives could have been employed to give more weight to this horror of mass murder.

As an amateur dramatic performance, this was impressive. As with much regional theatre, the main shortcomings could have been overcome with a bigger budget. Nevertheless, this production proves that regional amateur dramatics can still be ambitious, confident and relevant. Whilst the manifestations were extreme, the underlying motivation – men’s control over women’s lives – makes the play pertinent for our times.  

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