Review: The Duchess of Malfi at The Playhouse

Harlow Playhouse / Fri 20th Sep 2013 am30 11:45am


By Jo O’Reilly

The Eyestrings theatre company’s interpretation of ‘The Duchess of Malfi‘ is an intense, oppressive and uncomfortable piece of theatre, but don’t let that put you off. It is strikingly well directed, for the most part well acted and its use of props is clever and knowing without seeming smug.

There was a mixed audience for the performance, the young and the old squeezed into The Playhouse’s studio theatre, it was an intimate and cosy setting for such an intense show, the unseasonably early September chill had been shut out by central heating.

With the warm, still, atmosphere, vaudeville background music and the fixed Stepford smiles of the cast. You’re being drawn in, a suffocating yet comfortable silence, the calm before the storm.

The smiling cast scream, hysterical. The audience jump, the spell is broken.
The play starts. As characters take it in turns to set the scene the rest of the cast act behind them in slow motion. It’s familiar imagery; it’s the video footage you’ve seen of tragedy, history in slow motion, the calm before the execution.

This is, after all a play about an execution. A sister murdered by two brothers. It’s a story as at home in its Jacobean origins, to the stylised 1920s adaption in front of us, to the modern day. The execution of the Duchess is what the tabloids would crassly christen an honour killing today. Life imitating art, art imitating life.

Beatrice Walker’s depiction of the gilded cage that is the life of the Duchess, and her attempts despite it, to control her own destiny, are well suited to the stifling atmosphere. Her subsequent betrayal is all the more uncomfortable when her part is acted with such strength. All the more stark in comparison to the part of her husband played by Owen Young, weak and incompetent.

Walker doesn’t verge into over acting, even as her character starts to suspect her own safety is a lost cause. Despite this it is Charlotte Powell’s supporting performance as Cariola, her confidante that steals the show.

The brother Ferdinand’s descent into madness after the murder should provide comfort, a sort of Shakespearian moral to the story. This is short lived as the cast assembles into ghosts of guilt both living and dead. The supporting cast provide another glimpse of the brothers shared lack of moral fibre. As the play ends the audience is once again left to dwell, this is a story of weak men killing strong women in an orgy of crisply acted, violence.

My only real critique is that, in its focus on the immediacy of the violence, the play loses some context. There is little time or space given to the back-story. If I wasn’t already familiar with the play I might have struggled to connect the dots of the characters relationships.

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