Writer: John Webster
Director: Owen Horsley
Reviewer: Eleanor Turney
The Public Reviews Rating:
This is a big, meaty play for such a small space. Director Owen Horsley has had fun here, trying to cram this sprawling, chaotic revenge tragedy into 90 minutes, while simultaneously battling with the tiny theatre at the back of the White Bear pub. He may not win every battle, but he most certainly wins the war with this visceral production that has his cast quite literally bouncing off the walls.
The piece makes excellent use of tableaux to explore the complex relationships portrayed, and for all its relative simplicity is a very visual production. Its use of often unsubtle visual cues is effective – it helps begin to make sense of what is a complicated and often confused plot. Dangling meat hooks, simple costumes and a minimum of gore keep the play mostly on the right side of melodrama.
Webster never really makes it clear why Ferdinand and the Cardinal do what they do; it is a struggle to understand their increasingly violent actions. Orlando James’s Ferdinand charts an interesting journey from seemingly normal party host to protective brother to raging, homicidal lunatic, and plays “mad” with a restraint that brings out the creepiest aspects of the character. George Taylor’s Cardinal was, for me, too erratic and he shouted a little too much, but he portrays a man willing to go to any lengths for power with elegance and a sinister smile.
A lot of the production was too loud; there was altogether too much shrieking which did the play no good and felt rather overbearing in such a small space. The proximity of audience to stage is taken full advantage of, and while this is often highly effective, the shouting felt too much like a device to shake up the audience and not enough like an honest response to a situation. Kelly Hotten’s graceful duchess took particular advantage of the closeness of the audience; she was all stark white face and big eyes, trying to maintain control as her life unravels around her.
The production is well-acted, and tries hard to elevate the play to be a sombre and tragic evening. This is not a reflection on the cast or direction, but it is hard not to feel that the sheer ridiculousness of the plot rather undercuts all the hard work everyone is putting in. The last half hour (after what could plausibly be the climax of the play) drags – again, the fault lies with Webster not with the production. As the play nears its end, it reaches new heights of silliness and ultimately this is a well-judged, wonderfully macabre rendition of a very silly play. A tight cast, and highly atmospheric lighting and sound, help to lift Webster’s plot onto a higher plane.