Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi seems the hardest play these days to get right. A dance of death that breathes out decay and moral contagion at every pore, you’d think the Globe’s beautiful and intimate new Sam Wanamaker indoor playhouse, emulating the first Jacobean theatres and lit only by candles, would be perfect for bringing the play’s dark intimacies, betrayals, and violence into chilling focus.
Such craftsmanship has clearly gone into the timbered building with its wooden pillars, octagonal shaped three-tiered thrust stage auditorium and shuttered artificial light. But the same degree of skill and intensity is sadly, not present on the stage.
Malfi has often drawn stellar actresses to the role: Peggy Ashcroft, Helen Mirren, Juliet Stevenson and Eve Best amongst them. The play has the capacity to stir and move millstones, one of the best in this vein being Stevenson’s in Philip Franks’ Greenwich production in the mid 1990s.
Dominic Dromgoole with the rising if not risen Gemma Arterton (Hilde Wangel in the Almeida’s The Master Builder, Stephen Frears’ Amanda Drewe in the film of the name and Tess in the BBC’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles) as the Duchess seems to have settled on something far less ambitious, a horror-lite portrait of dysfunctional siblings heavily informed by post-modernist irony.
This sits well with a character like Bosola, the soldier loyalist employed as spy by the Aragon dukes Ferdinand and his brother the Cardinal, whose mercenary inclinations reflect his amorality but also a rich sense of nihilism. All is one, in the end, he realises, as Fate and accident take charge.
If Bosola is the nearest thing to the play’s moral centre, Arteton’s Duchess starts off regal and remains gaily headstrong in the face of repression, exile, mental torture and finally murder – if not exactly virtue personified a fair facsimile of a doomed aristocrat Webster might well have recalled, one Anne Boleyn.
Too often, though, this Malfi production underwhelms by its resistance to savouring the text. Feeding on popular sentiment, what should be a bitter and tragic indictment of power and its perversions (Ferdinand is a ripe case of incestuous psychosis) is rendered coolly self-knowing. Disappointing.