It is set to disturb. Part of Nottingham Playhouse’s Conspiracy Season, The Duchess of Malfi is ready to stir and shake an audience, which is exactly what this production does. Although the term “disturb” may not allude to your typical conceptions of a brilliant production, it is exactly that in the play, and how it was set, performed, cast and directed that leaves audience pondering for more. Despite the shocking quality, the underlying roots of love and joy and greed make this play altogether more fascinating.

The John Webster tragedy depicts the lives of The Duchess of Malfi herself, her two twisted brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand. The Duchess, a young widow, is visited by her brothers, who upon placing their spy, Bosola, in her household, warns her against impropriety of remarriage – for making sure she does not wed is key to gaining her wealth. However, the Duchess thus falls in love with her steward, Antonio, and the two secretly marry. Children, betrayal and murder ensue.

One thing that must be pointed out is the design of the set, the lighting and the sound. From the get go we are presented with a fantastical chandelier, heightening the drama and instantly grabbing our attention. Often the staging was minimal, an appropriate choice, as sometimes simplicity really makes more of an impact. This being said however, throughout some scenes there was the busy bringing of suitcases on stage, and then taking them back off again. This use of movement is initially creative, however, at times it was slightly off putting for the audience to concentrate on the action itself.

“One thing that must be pointed out is the design of the set, the lighting and the sound”

The simplicity of the production is perhaps best demonstrated towards the end of the play. A plain, white, cotton dress. Bare feet. Hair cut short. Raw and scathed and completely open for the world to see. Here we see The Duchess at her most incredible. Beatriz Romilly, who so beautifully portrays the Duchess herself, brings to the surface an array of complex emotions. Imprisoned and surrounded by the mad, The Duchess mourns, weeps and drowns in sorrow, but for every knock there is a sign of spirit that brings the audience right back at her side, though it would be doubtful that we would ever leave her.

For the character of Ferdinand, Chris Jared manages to somehow bring us away from the initial greed that seems to be from deep within, but rather, in the depths of his lycanthropia, we see an animal like rage and despair, surely brought about by the death of his sister. No longer do we see him as an unlikable persona, but rather one that we should fear, and yet here we are longing for him to escape the madness, much like we were longing for the Duchess to escape her imprisonment.

“As the play rounds off, the image of death is imprinted on the mind”

Jamie Satterwaite, who is cast as Antonio, has a brilliant rapport with both the Duchess and Delio, brilliantly played by Peter Bray, and is something to be admired. Patrick Brennan, who plays the Cardinal, is magical at being hateful, and Lisa Howard brings about that loyalty from Cariola that is well and truly needed. It would be wrong not to mention Rebecca Starker, who plays Julia, who brought in a fabulous, however unexpected, comedic element, and of course, Bosola, played by Matthew Wait, is nothing short of mesmerising.

The story is well known. The expectations are high. Both the play, and this production of it, does exactly what a piece of theatre ought to do: make the audience think. I have never been in a theatre so filled with suspense, and yet laughter could still be heard throughout. As the play rounds off, the image of death is imprinted on the mind, and the characters meet their fate you truly wonder, about love and life and death and hope, and what more can you wish for from a piece of theatre.

9/10

Isobel Davidson

Image credited to Shelia Burnett via The Nottingham Playhouse

The Duchess of Malfi is running at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 14th November. For more information see here.

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