The servant Delio (Riya Banerjee) enters the stage, a tense, static figure, and cloaks the Michael Pilch Studio in an uncomfortably long silence. Rhapsody Productions’ version of John Webster’s tragedy The Duchess of Malfi begins as it means to go on, encapsulating the moment of quiet before disaster, in a minimalist production in which the performances of a talented cast carry this tension throughout.
Webster’s play paints a brutal picture of political corruption in 16th-century Italy, through the lens of a recently widowed young woman and her ambitious brothers, and stagings of the text often live and die on the strength of the interactions and rapport between members of the cast. There is a complex web of relationships, between the powerful and the power-hungry, the lovers and the ambitious courtiers, to be established in a series of vignettes before the escalation to violence in the final acts. While Rhapsody Productions have slightly slimmed down the cast and removed some scenes, the complexity remains, and has been well navigated.
None of the cast members ended up defaulting to the well-worn stereotype associated with their role. The performance of Nathan Crewe (who also directs the production) performance granted the disgraced spy Bosola a degree of emotional depth, while losing none of the character’s innate sliminess; Alex Bridges as lovelorn steward Antonio knew when to rein in the nervous energy in favour of a more authentic tenderness. Jules Upson was deliciously unhinged as the Duchess’ brother Ferdinand, although one sometimes felt as though he amped up the volume of his dialogue at the expense of emotional expression. Disha Kashyap’s eponymous Duchess was the sun around which the rest of the play revolves, the character acting as a fittingly blank canvas onto which the men around her can project, though later in the play a degree of tenacity on her part does shine through.
Elspeth Knight’s costumes were another highlight, with Crewe’s corset and mesh shirt ensemble and the touches of androgyny in Bridges’ look being especially memorable. However, given the strength of the cast’s acting performances, it is a shame that the production wasn’t more impressive aesthetically. The minimalist set design by Ruby Sayer did not necessarily correspond with the lavishness of either the costumes or the sordid decadence on display in Webster’s script.The production seemed to occupy a strange grey area between a modern adaptation of the themes of The Duchess of Malfi and an attempt at authentically capturing the play’s setting. The only real element of set design were a few translucent white curtains hanging off-centre at the back of the stage, which are not utilised as seamlessly as they could have been in facilitating various actors’ entries, exits and, in one case, imprisonment.
The staging of certain scenes was also awkward — with the space at times too crowded and in other moments underutilised. The visceral onstage murders, revolutionary when the play was first staged, were well performed, but the production had not sufficiently thought through how to get around the placement of several corpses centre stage halfway through the show, so the later scenes sometimes felt claustrophobic. Moreover, the staging of some of the play’s dialogues felt very static, and as a result one became keenly aware of how often that space wasn’t being filled, despite the modest size of the Pilch.
Rhapsody Production’s version of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ had some teething issues, but these do not ultimately detract too significantly from the production’s merit. The cast and crew demonstrated a strong ability to convey the play’s themes to a contemporary audience through evocative performances, despite a convoluted script and limited visual resources.