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Two dates with a Duchess

Posted by: Richard Martin - 27 March 2024 - Activities & Sports - Read time: 4 minutes

The Duchess of Malfi was the first play to be performed at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse which opened in 2014 with Gemma Arterton David Dawson giving outstanding performances as the Duchess and villainous Ferdinand.

The logic behind this decision was that Webster’s great revenge tragedy had first been performed at the Blackfriars theatre and this exquisite venue is a replication of it. We think that Webster wrote the play with this theatrical space in mind; it is not every playwright has this opportunity. The 2014 production was a benchmark, and in my mind the best I had seen since seeing Helen Mirren as the Duchess and Bob Hoskins as Bosola at the Roundhouse (in my gap year) in 1980.

The current modern revival does not regrettably build on its illustrious predecessor. It was a rather uncertain production and the decision to make the Duchess’ first-born by her second marriage female mixes patronising tokenism with historical inaccuracy. In cutting the line (so far as I remember) in which the child’s horoscope designates ‘a short life and a violent death’ we also lose a vital effect of the play: Webster eschews catharsis and suggests instead an unending cycle of violence which will shortly immerse the surviving child in a hemoclysm. In removing any reference to the Duchess’ first born by her first marriage and (so far as I remember, allusion to the papal seizure of the Malfi estate), the audience is deprived of any sense of the grisly after life the play’s ‘conclusion’ threatens.

For reasons not clear to me the play’s final couplet with its significant reference to integrity was cut from this production. A final endorsement on the playwright’s part of the protagonist’s truth to self is an unfortunate omission – particularly since it challenges the source material’s more censorious stance on the Duchess.

I liked the way the words of the play were projected onto the stage: for students this was immensely beneficial and for me it is always pleasing to see words made flesh. The stage alluded to the geometric imagery of the play by which the Duchess sees her domestic circle as a sacred space. She is oblivious to the fact that a ‘saucy and ambitious devil dances’ within its circumference; that it was breached before it, in effect, existed.

The actor playing Bosola should stamp his identity so forcibly on the play that an audience might sporadically consider the play mistitled. This Bosola did nothing of the kind. The part of the Duchess was well-played: diminutive she might be, but she towered above the other actors in stage presence.

This was not a remarkable production, but for A level students preparing to write on the play it was beneficial and timely, since it followed the mocks and acted as a prelude for the business of revision over the Easter recess. Their ability to see weaknesses in it (and many were more generous in their praise than me) confirms their knowledge of the play. Even a weaker ‘Duchess’ is better than no ‘Duchess’ at all.