The Duchess of Malfi

12th to 19th November 2022

John Webster | The Crescent Theatre | Directed by Andrew Cowie

Webster’s tale of violence and the abuse of power is surely the most famous of the Jacobean revenge tragedies. In the latest studio production from The Crescent Theatre in Birmingham it is brought to blood-soaked life in all its chilling glory.

A young, widowed Duchess marries for love, in secret, to a man who is her social inferior. What starts as a love story quickly descends into nightmarish tragedy as her two brothers enact a brutal revenge for her disobedience and perceived betrayal. Rather depressingly, it doesn’t feel at all like it was first performed in 1614.

“It’s a bit like Succession,” explains director Andrew Cowie. “Everybody is vile and deceitful to everybody else. My vision is to try and tell the story as clearly as possible. In the very violent scenes there’s almost a risk that it tips over into being a bit pantomime.” Thankfully there is nothing pantomimic about this production: a talented cast of eight actors bring the horrors of female entrapment and persecution vividly to the stage.

It’s the female characters, as is the case in so many of Shakespeare’s plays, who morally and intellectually soar above their male counterparts. Despite the inevitable grim conclusions, there is a dignity in the suffering of the women here which raises the play to great tragedy.

Grace Cheatle's Duchess is full of poise and exudes the quiet confidence and control the part demands. Webster's poetry is delivered with a clarity which places the storytelling centre stage. Her naturalism creates a truthful and moving connection with her steward Antonio, played with equal naturalism and poise by Jason Adam. They hold the play together in central performances full of pathos and entirely devoid of melodrama. Not an easy feat in a work which is known for its violently dramatic scenes.

The Duchess’ twin brother, Ferdinand, shifts from sinister control to madness in a convincing performance from Andrew Elkington. Rage simmers under the surface of this deeply unstable character, particularly in scenes with his corrupt brother, a deeply unpleasant and immoral Cardinal played with icy aloofness by Tom Lowde.

The more rounded and psychologically convincing character of Bosola, a spy in the pay of Ferdinand, is played by Robert Laird with unnerving control. The archetypal malcontent figure, he’s part villain, part detective, and drives much of the plot. Fi Cotton's Cariola, the Duchess' waiting woman, is the very embodiment of service and female loyalty. Her final scene is all the more pained and affecting for the connection established with her mistress. In her parallel role as Antonio’s steadfast friend, Jess Shannon bookends the play beautifully as Delia. And there’s excellent work from Charlotte Thompson as Julia, mistress to the Cardinal.

The decision to set the play in 1930s fascist Italy works nicely to emphasise the devastating consequences of corruption and the abuse of power: scenes with members of Mussolini’s Blackshirts are particularly chilling. But it’s the scenes with the Duchess which linger most in the memory. A fine production of an important play.

The Duchess of Malfi is playing at the Crescent Theatre from 12th to the 19th November 2022.