John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi plays much like a Greek tragedy: as in, it is extremely melodramatic. So, it is interesting to see Rebecca Frecknall’s adaptation of the play stay true to the nature of its source, and translate that through style. From the vitreous set, to the occasionally, exaggerated delivery of Jacobean text, Malfi oozes this overt opulence that teeters towards the excessive.
Centre stage there stood, what can only be described as, a “swimming pool changing room” cuboid structure. Lydia Wilson (The Duchess) convincingly makes the box her space and her space alone. It was intimate, it was intruding, it was incarcerating. Such beautiful imagery by Chloe Lamford (Design), who buckets the scrutinised hedonism in the classic tale and completely drenches the entire production with it. You also see this in the dark floorboards, in the two glass cabinets laced with chalices, alcohol, guns and other silvery ornaments. Nicki Gillibrand (Costume) dresses the wealthier characters in black tie and lilac silks, and adorns some of the poorer ones in neutral dyed starched cotton, emulating in the most obvious of ways, the disparity between The Duchess’ family and everybody else. Grandeur such as this, directly contrasted with subdued modesty feels intimidating. It feels as though we have been exposed to a realm incomprehensible and unattainable to us, akin to how Bosola felt entering the palace. Bright lights mute, then amplify, then mute again with the changing tensions. Brash synths, short but arduous, blare at the end of intense scenes. These theatrics build this insurmountable apprehension, consistently putting the audience on edge.
(Side Note: I don’t know whether I should applaud George Dennis for almost giving me a heart attack at one point or reprimand him for it. Either way, his methods were effective.)
That being said, the plot doesn’t leave much to be considered. It is one of those incomprehensibly tragic forbidden love stories, proving in the most insufferable of ways that love truly does not conquer all. And the dialogue is nothing short of verbose; Webster’s clunky script proves just as difficult to grasp for the audience as much as for the actors. To render this palatable for a 21st century audience is an undoubtedly ambitious project. Personally, modern adaptations always feel distant, never really saying or doing much of anything that makes sense today. I believe these affinities we develop for certain classics exist because we have been drilled to understand them through our curriculums, but I often question can we genuinely enjoy something we can’t quite comprehend or relate to? Is there a point in trying to fit something outdated into a time where our values have evolved? Perhaps the only way to keep things interesting for us is to overemphasise what we cannot overlook: the visuals and sounds.
With some strong performances in its midst, Malfi is an amalgamation of striking modernity apposed with an outdated script. Surface level, it is an absolutely stunning production but dig a little deeper, and you cannot run away from Webster’s worn grip. Yet, what you cannot fault is its appeal. Brazen, bold and unrelenting, the Almeida’s showing of The Duchess of Malfi is definitely worth seeing, if not for the staging alone.