Kym Nicholls

LUDS Presents: The Duchess of Malfi: A review

Death hath ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits

The Duchess of Malfi is a Renaissance tragedy filled with betrayal, jealousy, lust, and copious amounts of death. Oh boy, is there ever death! Penned by John Webster in 1612-13, the Duchess and her two cruel brothers have stalked the stage in a murderous rage for four hundred years. Now, director Fran Denman and her talented cast bring the Stanley Theatre to life with their vivid production.

A recently widowed Duchess (Honey Hammer) falls in love with a steward from a considerably lower class, Antonio (Cameron Steen). She has been forbidden to remarry by her overbearing brothers – The Cardinal (Jamie Pugh), who takes quiet pleasure in cruelty for cruelty’s sake, and Ferdinand (Alex Webber-Date), who rages against her independence throughout the play. The Duchess is defiant, and marries Antonio in secret, but their life together is put at risk when Ferdinand dispatches a spy – Bosola (Siobhan McCluskey), to infiltrate her court – adamant she must remain a widow for the rest of her life.

The first half of the play is quick to establish a solid romance between Antonio and the Duchess. Both actors are charming and believable in their performances: impossible not to root for, even though you know their happiness is surely doomed. A powerful tension builds from scene to scene as Bosola creeps closer to uncovering their secret marriage.

Honey plays the Duchess with a tremendous warmth, and is loving and relaxed around Antonio and her loyal confidante Cariola (Emily Hope), yet remains a strong, proud spirit whenever she finds herself threatened. As her family and power are wrenched from her, she refuses to break, she stands firm and declares “I am Duchess of Malfi still.

The language of Malfi is wonderfully poetic. The cast are clear and confident in their command of Early Modern English. The Cardinal in particular makes some truly chilling speeches, his quiet voice gives them a sinister, lingering quality.

Siobhan’s Bosola is another standout performance, full of chemistry with the entire cast. Bosola paces the stage with a swaggering bravado that masks her unease at her increasingly immoral actions. Bosola is terribly conflicted, hired to spy, threaten, and kill at the behest of Ferdinand, whom she rightfully mistrusts. In a thoroughly corrupt world, she may want to make the moral choice, but is instead pushed into acting out the depraved will of her superiors. Easily the play’s most complex character, the decision to cast a female Bosola is commendable, adding a fresh perspective to a play hyper-concerned with bucking against the limits of power available to women.

A whirlwind of devastation, destruction and death keeps the audience reeling throughout the final two acts. The climactic sword fight is cleverly lit, so that duelling shadows stretch out and cover the theatre’s right wall – making the clash of swords all the more fraught and intense.

The Duchess of Malfi is an absolute thrill from start to finish. A phenomenal amount of work has gone into this production and the results are stunning. The entire cast is dedicated, charismatic and professional.

Fran Denman’s directorial debut is quite simply, stellar.

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