The space and atmosphere in this Colchester production of The Duchess Of Malfi are defined less by Tim Meacock's set – a drape or column flown in here, a bench carried on and off there – than by Spraggett's marvellous lighting design. Beams, spots, pools and small square ports of light in various compositions signify changes of location, and it takes a talented lighting person indeed to create only the impression of gloom without resorting to genuine murk.
Unfortunately, the performances in Gregory Floy and Sue Lefton's production are much less discreetly demonstrative. After a prologue dance, Tony Casement's steward Antonio utters barely a single line in response to his friend's opening question before turning forward to deliver a set-piece speech full on to the audience rather than to his trusted Delio. Supposedly confidential conversations are bellowed across half the distance of the stage as other parties pass between, while Peter Forbes as the malcontent Bosola breathes down the neck of the venal Cardinal (Ian Kirkby), who remains all unaware of the loud railing against him mere inches from his ear. Clever use is made of the aisles through the auditorium, but most bizarrely, at a few points Floy and Lefton have their cast act out what John Webster plainly wrote as metaphors: the Cardinal's mistress Julia conducts her seduction of Bosola at pistol-point, and earlier, the Duchess herself, having enticed Antonio to become her secret husband, signs his quietus est upon his lips not with a kiss but, with surreal literalness, with a quill pen.
Seldom has it been harder for me to discern the looming menace, the dark, deep waters in this play by the darkest of the Jacobean tragedians; this rendition is all roaring torrents. Kate Gartside's Duchess simpers her way skittishly through the first half until her marriage is discovered by her obsessive twin brother Ferdinand; after the interval she, like Forbes's Bosola, finds the tragic measure of the role, but by now it is too late, as Ignatius Anthony's Ferdinand (scarcely the most temperate of characters at the best of times) gives full, gibbering vent to his growing insanity - far madder he than the lunatics whom he sends in to goad his imprisoned sister. Intended gags, such as Ferdinand's crack about women liking best "that part which, like the lamprey, hath never a bone in it... I mean the tongue", go unnoticed by the audience, whilst the final spate of murders - almost devoid, in Webster's work, of the black comedy of most other Jacobean revenge tragedy – consistently draw laughter. Bosola's grim observation that "We are merely the stars' tennis balls" could easily be adapted to the relationship here between the actors and directors.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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