Review: The Duchess of Malfi

A bloody great play for Bloody Good Period


Dying onstage, the falling actor strains to hear the effect. Horror’s gasp, the dutiful response, will often sound for the innocent. Yet laughter’s muffle may well be overheard too, and with a certain unease. An assured execution stirs sympathy, but faltering under a weight of persuasion, it can on a weary night be a little bit funny.

The Duchess of Malfi at Corpus Christi’s Chapel handled its own murders with conviction. There’s a humour that comes with any frenzy of deaths, like the unlikely burst of gunshots in all directions in this play’s final scene. Malfi’s actors were alive to such moments, and cashed in on the strange entertainment that arose. In turn, less frantic deaths became all the more moving. Projecting Antonio’s hanged corpse onto the Chapel’s back wall was genuinely harrowing, as was the sound of bodies being dragged away, the sight of the limp Duchess carried offstage. At times the visibility of all these slaughters admittedly was obstructed, but such was its power anyway: images of death left to the imagination, the uncertainty if bodies would rise up into sight with new life. Malfi’s actors stressed all the right pressure points in the play to make its tragedy felt.

Image credits: Viv Wang

The chapel’s space, spare and intimate as it was, placed the burden of performance far more on acting than any effects of production. Joe Wright as Bosola seemed acutely aware of this. His character unravels its latent madness with witty, sometimes disturbing, asides to the audience; his pauses and use of the stage space are brilliant. Ferdinand’s (Joshua Herberg) physicality works towards a convincingly fraught dynamic with the Duchess (Emsy Gibson). Their gentler interactions between all the conflict stay firm, if Ferdinand’s words sometimes lose themselves in the chapel’s echo. Leo Kang in particular frays at the edges of the Cardinal’s sanity with such sensitive pacing. There’s a steady shift from the more stoic brother to a character tormented in his own right, well-timed silences and expressions used to facilitate it.

This spareness of lighting and set left a little to be desired, but then again a centuries-old chapel comes with its own troubles (the fear of those candles incinerating it was certainly one). But thoughtful touches were still noticeable. I liked the emergence of the murdered Duchess on the organ’s balcony, overlooking the deaths that followed with a kind of pained corporeality. Added scenes between the Duchess and Antonio (Charles Wolrige Gordon) made for a less remote relationship, one already aided by the raw sincerity of Antonio’s acting. The engagement with the text felt thorough, thoughtful, original.

The Duchess of Malfi is not an easy play to perform. It demands knotty transitions of character over a two hour period without loss of momentum, and for tragedy to hold shape somewhere in the blur of all its deaths—all of which I felt this production accomplished. It was engaging and assured, and made for a great Engling theatre trip on a Friday night.

4/5

The Duchess of Malfi is showing 31st of January—3rd of February. The production is raising money for a charity, Bloody Good Period, who provide period products and sexual and reproductive health education for people who can’t otherwise access them.

Book your tickets here.

Feature image credits: Viv Wang