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The Duchess of Malfi

Published by: Samuel Miller on 6th Mar 2009 | View all blogs by Samuel Miller
The Duchess of Malfi

Produced by Black Sun Theatre Company

Directed by Jemma Gross

The White Bear Theatre Club

Black Sun Theatre Company gives us a stark, modern Malfi, free of the omnipresent trappings of Fringe Jacobean drama. Gone are the inevitable cobbled together outfits and period costumes, and in their place we are treated to sharp suited nobles, prowling an economical but effective white space.

What stood out for me in this production was director Jemma Gross’s courage in approaching the text, and her refusal to adulterate the less popular themes of the play, instead remaining true to many of the original Jacobean viewpoints. This Duchess is a naïve, spoilt royal, unaccustomed to taking responsibility and ignorant of consequences. Ferdinand and the Cardinal – monsters though they may be – are genuinely wronged by their sister’s betrayal, and this is the first time I have seen a production that examines this. Gross is unafraid to embrace the darker aspects of the play, which is greatly to the production’s credit.

This is a tremendously committed, energetic and talented young cast. Trudy Hodgson’s Duchess and Bethany Audley’s Cariola exhibit terrific chemistry throughout the play, teasing Antonio and creating a true friendship. Henry Doulton’s foppish Antonio gives us the sense of a man swept up in events beyond his control, along with Sam Child’s likeable and excellently judged Delio. Alex Tanner brings a powerful, brooding Cardinal. Steven Rostance and Paul Mooney play a terrific comic double act as well as multiple characters, with Mooney’s Doctor a highlight. The excellent Jack Cole fills in the peripheral roles, and particularly excels in a gleeful portrayal of a demented lunatic. Rose Romain plays a wonderful Julia, strutting her way across the stage like a splash of blood.

However, the most watchable scenes for me were the ones between James Rose’s conflicted, tortured Bosola, and David Fensom’s brilliant Ferdinand. Bosola is a tremendously difficult character to play, and Rose tackles him perfectly, showing a man torn between his greed and his conscience. Fensom’s Ferdinand is a revelation – funny, sexually ambiguous, sadistic – and tremendously enjoyable to watch.

The Duchess of Malfi is a difficult play, and I’m always curious to see how theatre companies approach staging the trickier aspects of the piece. Jemma Gross deals with devices such as the wax corpses and copious violence with sensitivity, never allowing the production to swerve into Grand Guignol. This production is clever, well-played, intelligently directed, and certainly worth the trip to the White Bear.

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