Sunday, September 10, 2006

Review of The Duchess of Malfi (Stratford 2006)

The Duchess of Malfi is a strange, dark play. The plot is not at all straightforward to modern audiences, and instead of the plot synopsis that Stratford provides in its program this year, we would have been better served by a brief section describing the background to the play: The Duchess, a widow, has inherited the lands and power of her late husband the Duke. Her brothers, a cardinal and a count, are anxious to keep her from remarrying as they scheme to get the lands and power for themselves. Many in the Stratford audience hadn't figured out this basic motivation by the end of the play; John Webster's audience in 1612 would have known the true story on which the play is based and would have been very familiar with this sort of situation, so he just plunges into the action.

As with conceptual art, you need to understand some theory to really appreciate a play like the Duchess of Malfi. It follows the form of Jacobean revenge tragedy, which, for example, prescribes the inclusion of a mad-person scene. Stratford presents the complete, pure play - which is admirable, but I'd prefer a slightly updated and truncated version, cutting the mad-person scene and shortening the scenes that follow the Duchess's death, among others.

Director Peter Hinton compensates for the inaccessibility of the play by putting on a pageant. He pulls out all stops. Peter Donaldson, Scott Wentworth and Steve Cumyn are, as usual, a delight. The costumes, sets and lighting effects are magnificent.

There is something else that Hinton brings to the play to keep us interested that is more controversial, and that is quite a lot of gratuitous nudity. The nudity is a puzzle. There are several fat, flabby and completely nude men. There is also one young, attractive naked woman. The difference in the treatment of the sexes is made even stronger by the fact that the woman has shaved pubic hair - not exactly what you'd expect in a play that is otherwise an historical costume drama. The nudity was an off note.

Lucy Peacock's Duchess is an imperial woman who spits out her lines. It works in her final scenes, but before that I'd have liked to see a little more modulation to create a sense of who the Duchess is. Paul Essiembre's Ferdinand, the Duchess's twin brother who lusts for her, is wonderfully over the top. As he's going mad he howled like a wolf and made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. His over-emotional creepiness is a perfect contrast to Peter Donaldson's Cardinal, a controlled and scheming monster of a different sort.

This play is not a crowd pleaser. It's challenging, long and very dark. As the woman behind me said at the end, "Right... that was great and all, but I guess I prefer comedies."


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