To the background of the world seemingly going to hell in a handcart, I seem to have spent quite a bit of time peering into the darker side of life recently. Experiencing The Christopher Boy’s Communion, Chatroom and The Picture Of Dorian Gray over the last few days has certainly shown that being human can be a rotten business. To go from one murderous revenge tragedy set in Italy (yesterday’s Titus Andronicus) to another murderous revenge tragedy set in Italy, The Duchess Of Malfi, might seem ever so slightly negative and depressing but I can come away thinking that things could be worse in our present real scenario – at least there’s nobody trying to hack off a limb or stick a fork in my eye.
This latter was one of the gorier moments in Creation Theatre’s latest piece to go online which, for much of the rest of the time was relatively rather restrained – relative to Titus Andronicus, that is. While the family in the latter pull together to protect each other and direct all their revenge towards outsiders, the D’Aragona family in John Webster’s play spend their whole time trying to rip their bonds apart. The Duchess of the title remarries beneath her station and her two brothers, at least one of whom is clearly mad, become obsessed with saving her from herself along with the family name. To that end they throw her into a dungeon and leave her there under the care of the thuggish Bosola. Events play out leaving most of the main characters either dead or dying, victims of various forms and degrees of obsession.
Visually the production is a treat and deploys some clever video trickery in Stuart Read’s bold choices partly inspired by the giallo thrillers of Italian fiction which appeared in yellow covers. Far from the rigidly boxed and constrained formula which Zoom usually serves up, the various spaces seemed to be rather more free floating with a before unseen level of control over who appears where (and indeed whether they appear in more than one space); I’d be genuinely intrigued to know how some of this was achieved. Overlay has been deployed to suggest that actors in separate locations are actually together and, at a couple of points, faces get superimposed which is unnerving but totally in keeping with the style of the play itself. The production has a dreamlike (nightmarish?) quality to it and there’s extensive use of filters which enhance that effect as we watch through mists of yellow (there’s a lot of yellow- but see above), violet, blue and so on. There are also some film inserts which look like they come from a 1970s travelogue or one of those glossy adverts for Cinzano or Martini which were used to suggest the continental high life. Indeed the vibe of the production starts out as bright and sunny and gradually darkens. The scenes in the prison are, perhaps, a little underlit and I had to adjust my settings to avoid it becoming an audio play.
This is a trimmed version of the tragedy, coming in at 1 hour and 40 minutes, mostly by sacrificing scenes involving minor characters. Indeed, Creation have used just six actors from its online rep company which was instituted earlier this year. The losses are, actually, no great loss as this leaner version helps to speed events along and get to the heart of the matter rather more efficiently. The Duchess is played by Creation regular Annabelle Terry. She starts the play relatively carefree, deeply in love with her steward Antonio (an effective Kofi Dennis) but as events conspire against her a sense of hopelessness and despair starts to bleed through – there is almost a sense that she is relieved when her life is ended. Graeme Rose captures the dual nature of Bosala as critic of the hierarchical system but who can’t wait to be a part of it all. Andy Owens does what he can with the rather thankless role of best friend Delio and Giles Stoakley makes a suitably foul and hypocritical Cardinal. The standout performance for me, though, was the Duke Ferdinand of Dharmesh Patel. This carefully controlled performance was full of subtlety and nuance and the man’s sense of menace was palpable – I more than once found myself looking over my shoulder. Clearly playing him as somewhat unhinged right from the start, I thought the actor had given himself nowhere to go but by the end, channelling Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger, he was properly barking or, given the notion that he has turned into a wolf, that should probably be howling.
Creation is progressing plans to roll out their third rep company production of the year with a slimmed down Romeo and Juliet. Meanwhile, directors Laura Wright and Natasha Rickman have served up a heady brew in this version of Webster’s classic. Despite the general negativity inherent in his work (as T.S. Eliot said of him he “saw the skull beneath the skin”) they have manged to give us something which is full of positive creativity. However, looking back over the week I think I’m due for something rather lighter in tone and outlook; I wonder if there’s an online version of Salad Days I could go for.
The Duchess Of Malfi is available on the Creation Theatre website – click here
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