The Duchess of Malfi

Jess Murphy and Pip Brignall in The Duchess of Malfi
Photo credit: Jim Creighton

The first part in their ‘The Face of Decadence’ season, Scena Mundi’s latest offering is a full production of John Webster’s dark, murderous tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. Written c. 1613/14, around the same time as Fletcher & Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, it remained a popular play for the next century – though its violent nature proved too much for the more genteel tastes of the Georgians and early Victorians.

The Duchess has been widowed, and her brothers (Ferdinand and the Cardinal) want her to remain single so their inheritance is preserved. However, unbeknownst to them she marries her steward Antonio in a private ceremony, choosing him for his honesty and virtuousness over rank and wealth. As the years pass, a family grows around them but it is widely believed that the children are illegitimate as the marriage has been kept secret. As Ferdinand starts to take more interest in his sister’s welfare, even confronting her in her rooms late at night, she decides they must escape. Antonio is very publicly dismissed, and the Duchess pretends to make a religious pilgrimage in order to join him. However, she confides in Bosola (Ferdinand’s spy) about her marriage and the plan, so following a brief reunion only Antonio and their eldest son manage to flee. With the Duchess back in the hands of her brother, events take an even more sinister and bloody turn…

Jack Christie in The Duchess of Malfi
Photo credit: Jim Creighton

The Duchess remains nameless throughout, making her symbolic of all womankind and their treatment at the hands of men. Despite her best efforts the men seek to dominate and control the Duchess, wanting to keep her to themselves for their own gain – and subjecting her to horrific violence and mental torture. This is especially relevant now with world politics undergoing serious changes, Donald Trump in particular bringing misogyny back to the fore without suffering any repercussions. As well as this, the play shows what can happen when workers are exploiter by the rich & powerful for too long. Perhaps the ending to this play could serve as something of a warning.

As the season title suggests, Scena Mundi’s production is one of decadence; Gisèle Venet’s costumes are simply exquisite. Coupled with the beautiful decorations inside St Giles-in-the-Fields, they immediately place you in an historic court and are wonderfully appealing to the eye. With the themes of revenge and betrayal, this church is an ideal location – it was once the site of execution for traitors, and still a burial place for those executed at to Tyburn (now in the middle of Mayfair). Also, the natural light works beautifully: as it gets darker, so does the play.

The use of music adds an extra dimension; the cast initially entering to Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, which foreshadows events to come. The compositions used in this production are played on the violin at various moments throughout – it is suspenseful and portentous, giving real colour. Also in terms of sound, the cast does really well to minimise the effects of echoey church acoustics – you can’t expect it to be trouble-free, but for the most part everything is extremely clear.

Joanna Simmonett and Martin Prest in The Duchess of Malfi
Photo credit: Jim Creighton

The entire cast is outstanding. Jack Christie as Bosola and Jess Murphy as the Duchess particularly stand out. Bosola’s development over the course of the play is sensitively portrayed by Christie; beginning as something of a mercenary, he comes to regret his actions and vows to make amends. Murphy’s Duchess has a quiet dignity that makes the actions against her all the more shocking.

Pip Brignall’s performance as Ferdinand is nothing short of astonishing. He revels in terrorising his sister, eventually having her put to death; it’s clear early on that he’s quite unhinged but Brignall never overdoes it, keeping his character terrifying and unpredictable throughout.

Rupert Bates and Thomas Winsor in The Duchess of Malfi
Photo credit: Jim Creighton

My verdict? A truly stunning new production of a brutal play, in an historic setting its authenticity shines through – with performances to die for…

Rating: 5*

The Duchess of Malfi runs at St Giles-in-the-Fields until 27 May 2017. Tickets are available online or on the door.

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