Writer: John Webster
Director: Bruce Jamieson
Reviewer: Sheila Cornelius
George Bernard Shaw’s description of John Webster as ‘the Tussaud Laureate’ is appropriate: the people and events depicted in ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ wouldn’t seem out of place in the Chamber of Horrors on Marylebone Road. But there’s a lot more to Webster, Shakespeare’s contemporary, than waxwork monsters and explicit scenes, as Alice de Sousa’s riveting production demonstrates at Greenwich Playhouse.
Webster’s classic revenge tragedy with its many plot-twists begins when a wealthy Duchess is forbidden from remarrying. After arranging a secret a wedding with her servant, Antonio, she endures the consequences of the eventual discovery. First performed in 1614, the play presents the Duchess as woman who ‘stains the time past and lights the time to come’, with her virtue, in a ‘rank pasture’. Greed, oppression and inequality in the family reflect the bankrupt morality of public life. The contemporary background of plague-ridden Europe accounts, some critics claim, for Webster’s stark pessimism and visceral language. Others accuse him pandering to the bloody- thirsty tastes of his audience, at a time when graphic violence and a stage littered with bodies was the mark of a successful play.
Alice de Sousa as the Duchess delivers a cool portrayal of understated dignity, the still centre of a maelstrom of horror. Her evil elder brother played by Bruce Jamieson, who also directs, is a physically powerful, narrow-eyed Cardinal, whose sadism is signalled by offstage sounds of beatings and female screams. His mistress, played with a tacky WAG-like poise by Tanya Winsor, contrasts with the loyal servant-girl Cariola, Emma grace Amends, whose early warnings to her mistress make her fate all the more terrifying.
Damian Quinn captures the insouciance of malcontent Bosola, who cynically asks, ‘Whose throat must I cut?’ when offered a job. His eaves-dropping and snitching made him resemble a seventeenth century phone-tapper. Robin Holden is striking as the charismatically unhinged younger brother Ferdinand. Darren Stamford is endearing as the hapless Antonio; he and his loyal friend Delio, Alexander Neal, bring welcome moments of warmth with their scenes together. Martin Foreman, Phil Gerrard and Alex Reece make the flesh creep as the Cardinal’s instruments of violence.
A strong soundtrack of deep fog-horn sounds, startling bangs and raucous heavy metal rock add to the growing sense of terror. With few moments of tender romance, Philip Jones’s lighting ranges from brilliant sunlight to ever-deepening shadow as the plot becomes increasingly claustrophobic.
The choice of modern dress reinforces the play’s relevance to the present day, and Natasha Piper’s costumes are superbly detailed, to include a Cardinal’s belt with a sacred picture on the buckle and extended dagger-like points on Ferdinand’s shoes. All in all, this production conveys the atmosphere of John Webster’s powerful imagery. His dialogue lingers in the memory, including lines like that which describes a politician as ‘the devil’s quilted anvil’.
This is the final appearance of Galleon Theatre Company at this venue, because the hostel which houses it housed is to take over the accommodation for Olympic visitors. It’s a tragedy for the area that a fine company is to be ousted for commercial reasons, but it’s to be hoped that appeals to Greenwich Council and local MPs will aid their search for new premises. Local supporters are urged to contact them.