THE DUCHESS OF MALFI – Wanamaker Playhouse , Shakespeare’s Globe

HORROR , BEAUTY, CANDLELIGHT

It is a tiny jewel-box, this new indoor playhouse: a reproduction of the Jacobean theatres which succeded the wooden O of the Globe.  Clean pale wood benches lie beneath a ceiling of gilded stars, and the only light is from a hundred wax candles:   tremblng in sconces,  carried by actors, or rising and falling on seven great candelabras from the ceiling.  It is a beautiful thing, but until this first production we could not know whether it will really serve the plays.

Banish doubt: it’s a triumph.  Dominic Dromgoole has wisely chosen to open the Wanamaker with a play whose vision of normality overwhelmed by nightmare is  perfectly expressed by its candlelit intimacy.   The poetic morbidity of John Webster reanimates after four centuries his obsessions:  flesh as frail as curdled milk, stranglings , obscene desires, spider-web intrigue,  “Life a mist of error; death a storm of terror”.   Yet at the heart of the play is the most playful, wholesome and loving of heroines. More even than a Desdemona or Cordelia,  the Duchess shines steady against the blackness: a rounded, sensual, happy and fulfilled woman who even imprisonment only brings  to “melancholy fortified with disdain”,  who asserts her noble birth but dies saying “Give my little boy some syrup for his cold”.

Gemma Arterton brings a queenly beauty to the role, and on this night steps up into the first rank of classical actors.   In the lovely domestic scenes with her secret husband Antonio (Alex Waldmann)  she sings and teases, shrugging cheerfully that the “tempest” of her brother’s fury at the marriage will abate.  In captivity, tormented with visions of the beloved dead,  she can rage and grieve without compromising the still dignity which stands gravely by when bayed by madmen.   No grotesqueness can dim her quiet burning candle.

That grotesqueness, meanwhile,  is served with equal vigour by David Dawson as Duke Ferdinand, keeping his incestuous weirdness just this side of camp.  Writhingly petulant, shivering with inexpressible desire he is the perfect contrast to  his sister’s cheerful sensuality.  A fine physical contrast too with his pawn,  Sean Gilder’s Bosola, playing it as every inch the pragmatic ex-army bruiser moving from a brisk “Whose throat must I cut?” to horrified entanglement in the Duke’s filthy games.  And alongside the Duchess is Sarah MacRae’s Cariola:  of coarser clay than her mistress but warmly human and, in her own moment of death, inexpressibly touching.  All this, remember, is  achieved by candlelight:  rising and falling, snuffed out and re-lit,  the practical magic of a past age rediscovered.  With Claire van Kampen’s music on early instruments, it takes your breath away.

After the  savage climax of the Duchess’ death,  every director faces the problem of the longish final act. A more temperate playwright would head for a faster ending, but Webster revels in detailed dissolution, conspiracy, seduction, a ludicrous poisoned Bible and a jarring comic interlude with mad Ferdinand’s overconfident doctor.  For all the Gothic horror of the Duke’s werewolf grave-ripping,  progress towards the final heaping of corpses always risks absurdity.  Dromgoole does not resort to cuts or underplaying but ramps it up,  goes for broke, and allows the absurdities to produce a relieved shake of laughter in the tiny, crammed, beautiful room.

box office:  (0) 20 7401 9919   http://www.shakespeares-globe.com
to 16 Feb

rating:   five     5 Meece Rating

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