‘The Duchess of Malfi’ review – Rebecca Frecknall’s jet black thriller thinks outside the box
Lydia Wilson and Leo Bill give remarkable performances in this tense, confrontational and somewhat disorientating adaptation of John Webster’s family tragedy - ★★★★
The Duchess of Malfi cleverly sneaks its way into the Almeida Theatre’s repertoire. Not too soon after witnessing the breakdown of a household in Vassa are we presented with another fractured family in Rebecca Frecknall’s latest production. In its bold lighting and pounding music, the play is on par with Robert Icke’s tense hit, The Doctor.
While Frecknall’s multi-chapter adaptation can cause confusion over minor plot points, the main narrative is easily established: a widowed Duchess of Malfi (King Charles III’s Lydia Wilson) falls in love with a man named Antonio (Khalid Abdalla), except her brothers don’t approve of the decision and plot against her. They are helped in their plans by a spy, Bosola – a character equipped with many profound monologues, all passionately performed by Leo Bill (The Tragedy of King Richard the Second).
Save for the almost three-hour-long running time, Frecknall’s take on the revenge drama – aided by Chloe Lamford’s glass box set design - is refreshingly minimalist, with props and the central narrative stripped down to use only what is necessary. To the audience, the approach is tight and raw, but for the Duchess, the glass box in which she often finds herself is suffocating. Trapped inside, she is exploited, pressured and oppressed, while moments out in the open see her exercise her fragile authority. We clearly get the sense from Wilson that the Duchess is doing her best in the position in which she finds herself, despite all the devastation which is thrown her way.
In the many glass wall dramas staged in recent months – from the auditory drama ANNA at the National to Deafinitely Theatre’s hard-hitting mental health play 4.48 Psychosis - the fly-on-the-wall approach still strikes up some feeling of separation, whether intended or otherwise. This production, however, does not wish to distance us. Whether the set is creeping towards us or slipping into the darkened backstage, its stance is purely confrontational and unsettling.
In Jack Knowles’ lighting and Frecknall’s tone, Malfi jolts from blinding brightness to shocking, jet black darkness. Choreography-wise, most movements for characters locked away in the box are in slow-motion, while actors outside move at a normal pace. Characters peer through the glass, spectating. They are watching us as much as we are, them.
It is, as a play, one which rarely sits still, save for one particular moment where its silence and stillness is striking and unnerving. For fellow Malfi novices, the constant movement interlaced with flowery and poetic Shakespearean language can be tiring and disorientating at times – especially in a first act full of set-up.
The Duchess of Malfi is classically known for its graphic and gory detail, but Frecknall’s version carries a certain simplicity to it all which, quite interestingly, actually makes it more striking. While it takes some time to make an impact and could certainly be a lot more shorter if it wanted to be, this adaptation is surprisingly chilling.
This review was of a preview performance.