The Duchess of Malfi 1995

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Extraordinary, bordering on the astonishingThe Times
Declan Donnellan's enthralling production is a true and graphic re-evaluation of the play for our own Times.London Evening Standard

World premiere 19 September 1995 Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
London run from 27 December 1995 for 37 performances, Wyndhams Theatre

Produced by Cheek by Jowl

Find out more by visiting the entry for this production in our archive
Cast

Cast in order of speaking

Matthew MacfadyenAntonio Bologna
Shaun ParkesDelio
George AntonBosola
Paul BrennenCardinal
Scott HandyFerdinand
Anastasia HilleDuchess
Avril ClarkCariola
Nicola RedmondJuliav
Matthew Bowyer
Sean Hannaway
Christopher Kell
Terence Maynard
Guy Moore
Peter Moreton
The Court / Officers / Madmen / Executioners

Creatives
DirectorDeclan Donnellan
DesignerNick Ormerod
LightingJudith Greenwood
MovementJane Gibson
MusicCatherine Jayes

1996

The Duchess of Malfi is one of the more frequently performed non-Shakespearian tragedies in the English repertoire. Indeed, the Wyndhams Theatre has now played host to Webster's drama twice in the one year. "I am Duchess of Malfi still" -- "Yes and don't we know it, dear," you're tempted to respond, as for the umpteenth time, you award her the Mrs Miniver trophy for stoic fortitude.

Scraping off all the layers of sentimental varnish with which this play has recently been daubed, Declan Donnellan's revelatory Cheek by Jowl production puts to rout any feeling you might have of jaded over-familiarity. Replaced in a pre-war Mussolini-esque Italy and performed on Nick Ormerod's dark, drape surrounded chess board set, the story here unfolds as if for the first time, with both a diagrammatic beauty and a stinging psychological penetration.

Webster's widowed heroine is famously persecuted by her two oppressive brothers for daring to engage in a secret second marriage to her steward. The production takes you to the roots of the Duchess' need for defiance by showing you the siblings trapped in stifling patterns of mutual dependence and resentment (petulant slaps followed by desperate hugs) that were evidently laid down in some Ian McEwan-scale damaged childhood. Scott Handy's manic, emotionally arrested toy soldier of a Ferdinand and Paul Brennen's Cardinal, barricaded behind his sour professional smile, aren't aware that they are traversing a prison. The Duchess though, wants out, which lets disaster in.

Anastasia Hille is simply electrifying in the role. Instead of a trainee martyr, she presents us with an irritable, chain smoking, glamorously sexy and imperious neurotic who knows that she must somehow un-build her vanity but remains deeply ambivalent about the process. Notice how, after the uneasy seduction across eggshells of Matthew Macfadyen's steward, Hille's Duchess extricates herself from his first passionate kiss. And what begins as a self help experiment brilliantly here never blossoms at all naturally. George Anton's Bosola, the double-crossing malcontent spy played as a scarred Scottish squaddie, becomes (usefully for his career) the person to whom everyone is able to communicate emotions otherwise blocked. The proxy function reaches a grimly farcical extreme when Julia (Nicola Redmond), the Cardinal's abused mistress, anally rapes Bosola with a loaded pistol.

Hille wrings the heart because she plays against the pathos of the role, delivering supposedly tear jerking lines with a willed ironic swagger, hurling throaty guffaws at her oppressors and comically insisting (like a true aristocrat) on doing everything in her own good time. Wearing a mock crown left by one of the madmen sent to plague her she declares, "I am Duchess of Malfi still" on a tearful sardonic note as though she had just lifted it from a dictionary of quotations and was uncertain now of its applicability.

The production has a black ceremonial air, the Duchess' banishment symbollicaly signalled, for example, by the refusal to her and her husband of communion at Mass. By making her servant Cariola (Avril Clark) a religious maniac who none the less dies a much more cowardly death, this Malfi questions which of them had the deeper faith. If you rate productions according to the risks they pose from passive smoking, this may not (given the Duchess' penchant for substance abuse) be the evening for you. For everyone else, essential viewing. Paul Taylor, The Independent. 4 January 1996
It is an unforgettable start to the theatrical year. With our stomachs still unsettled from seasonal over indulgence, Cheek by Jowl wake up the West End from its torpor with Webster's gory compendium of horror.

Curiously, this is the second production of The Duchess of Malfi (1614) at Wyndham's in recent months -- a welcome indication that the commercial theatre is still prepared to take risks -- and Cheek by Jowl's staging is as fresh, startling and uncluttered as we have come to expect from this excellent company.

Better still, Anastasia Hille's performance in the title role leaves no doubt that she is a major star in the making. There is wit and an intelligence that put me in mind of Maggie Smith.

Critics have always been uneasy about Webster's Jacobean tragedies. Shaw dubbed him the Tussaud laureate and the dramatist's lurid devices, ranging from severed hands to poisoned bibles, run a grave risk of seeming risibly over the top.

Declan Donnellan's production taps into the play's dark heart, making the preposterous seem psychologically plausible. What's more, Webster's portrait of a dysfunctional royal family has resonance at a time when the House of Windsor seems intent upon tearing itself apart.

Not that Donnellan goes as far as presenting the persecuted Duchess of Malfi as a Diana-like 'Queen of Hearts' and her evil brothers as the enemy camp. The action is set in the early years of this century and if Hille reminds you of anyone it is Princess Margaret. The Duchess gets through the Scotch and cigarettes at a tremendous rate as the tragedy engulfs her, and in her doomed love for her steward Antonio, one is reminded of the Townsend romance.

There is no attempt at plodding naturalism here, and the play, staged on Nick Ormerod's dark, curtain shrouded design, achieves a dream like atmosphere. In the opening scene, the members of the courts seem like frozen statues, while after her death the Duchess remains on stage like a ghost, and attempts to warn her lover of his danger in a brilliantly staged echo scene.

It would be easy to make the Duchess seem like a wholly innocent victim of her brothers' malevolence. Hille offers a far more interesting interpretation. The Duchess too has been warped by privilege. She is at once haughty and neurotic. Banter gives way to bursts of furious temper and in the scene in which she woos Antonio, Hille conjures up an extraordinary mixture of commanding arrogance and yielding passion. The moment when she steps out of her clinging gold sheath of a dress is the most erotic on the London stage.

As pride is shattered by catastrophe, what makes the performance so moving, so chilling is that this Duchess greets horror with wild laughter and another drag on her fag. She simply can't believe what is happening to her yet, yet never quite loses her style or courage. Presented with a severed hand she calmly disposes of if a wastepaper basket, while the famous line, "I am Duchess of Malfi still" isn't a declaration of defiance but a bitterly ironic comment on the absurdity of the situation. Yet as death approaches, Hille suggests a sense of understanding and redemption.

Scott Handy plays her incestuous twin brother Ferdinand like a damaged child. He has a horrid giggle, hysterical tantrums and an infantile sexuality. In contrast, Paul Brennen is all icily controlled evil as the cardinal. George Anton could make much more of the ambiguity of Bosola, the serviceable malcontent with an awakening conscience. Matthew Macfadyen is a disappointingly bland Antonio.

There is however, no mistaking the clarity and the claustrophobic power of this production which chillingly captures the moral wasteland of the human soul. Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph. 4 January 1996
Cheek by Jowl's Edwardian period revival of Webster's great, gruesome tragedy seemed strikingly original when I saw it in Oxford in October but after three months on the road it has grown into something that is extraordinary bordering on astonishing. I am tempted to talk you through Declan Donnellan's production scene by scene, pointing out how and why it differs from conventional stagings. But since that would send my review careening onto page 94 let me evoke just once encounter between Anastasia Hille's Duchess and her twin, Scott Handy's Ferdinand.

It is Act III, scene ii. Duke Ferdinand, furious at his sister's downmarket marriage, sidles into her bedroom and not too subtly suggests that she kill herself. He gives her a dagger, threatens and terrorises her, and then disappears bug eyed into the night, leaving her wanly protesting , "you are too strict". She is passive ; he is a hyperactive maniac. He is evil; she is good. At any rate that is how the encounter is usually played.

Not here. Hille's Duchess slaps Ferdinand to the floor, leaps onto him, menaces him with the dagger, then laughs, coolly pours herself a Scotch, continues doing her hair and makes mocking monkey noises while he wildly blusters and bangs into the furniture. Then the mood switches and she is cuddling and comforting him before it switches again and he makes a blundering exit haplessly mouthing promises never to see her again.

Incredible, absurd, an extreme example of the way contemporary directors impose 20th Century psychology on Jacobean melodrama? Well, go and see for yourselves. It may sound as if Donnellan is more trick cyclist than responsible producer; but that is far from the effect in the theatre. Rather you feel you are witnessing the half comic, half horrifying death throes of a dark deep bond that perhaps only twins can fully understand. What Donnellan does is substitute human richness for theatrical stereotype.

After all, must the Duchess act as if she has just parachuted in not just from some nicer family but from some higher moral plane? And must her brother seem strong rather than weak because he is powerful? Nowadays we expect directors to ask similar questions of Shakespeare and would be amazed to get a wetly virtuous Cordelia or a straightforwardly villainous Goneril. Hille and Handy take corrective interpretation a long way: but never over the top.

She cuts a cool, confident figure and, though you also sense a longing for affection and simplicity, it is second nature to her to intimidate and not be intimidated. When that mad nocturnal prowler, her brother, reveals the hand that he has given her is severed and cold, what does she do after she has winced and thrown it aside? Why, pick it up and drop it into the wastepaper basket, as any house proud princess should.

Hille's is a wonderful performance -- tough yet sensitive, sardonic yet packed with ruefully observed pain -- and Handy's is very good. The impression his big, soft face gives is of an overgrown tot floundering in a world he can smash but never comprehend. Behind the strutting, the tears and the obsessive game-playing -- what did he and his overbearing sister get up to in the nursery? Handy suggests someone profoundly bewildered by his own emotions. How can he be so angry, so bitter, so vengeful?

Much has improved since Oxford in October. Paul Brennen, as the third of these nightmare siblings, adds a certain agony of soul to his portrait of Himmler in Cardinal's purple. As the Duchess' illicit husband Antonio, Matthew Macfadyen suggests a nervousness of heart and with it, an uneasy marriage. The worry, if any is George Anton's performance as the spy cum assassin Bosola, a character whose mix of the ambition driven and conscience stricken has attracted many a major actor. Couldn't he be more, well, interesting?

Yes, but if so, wouldn't that distract attention from the dysfunctional family at the centre? It is a question for Declan Donnellan and his cast to ponder as they perform in London and then continue what promises to be, even by Cheek by Jowl's standards, a surpassingly successful world tour. Benedict Nightingale, The Times. 4 January 1996