What comes first, the play or the venue? John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, with Gemma Arterton in the lead, always had the making of a significant theatrical event, but as the first production in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (the indoor jewel in the Globe’s crown), the focus is equally divided between play and theatrical space.
Let’s briefly talk about the venue: The excitement of the new indoor theatre – part of the original Globe vision and several years in the making – shivers in the air and the space is predictably beautiful but surprising in other ways. I was somewhat unprepared for how small it was. Even to my untrained eye, the architecture is recognisably that of an Elizabethan theatre but everything is scaled down. The feel is that of a dollhouse. Not unpleasant but definitely unusual.
As for Dominic Dromgoole’s production, it bristles with attention to detail and at these close quarters, detail you can see and almost touch (as we were sitting, almost pressed, against the stage, actors frequently brushed against us). The costumes look stunning, the weight of the fabric shapes the movements beautifully. With candlelight the only lighting source, the shadows are long but not heavy. One memorable scene is entirely in the dark.
The pace is dynamic, the performances engaging. David Dawson as Ferdinand looks like a sinister Pinocchio, a disturbing (and disturbed) unfinished boy. Alex Waldmann as Antonio brings the warmth I remembered (and loved) from RSC’s As You Like It. Sean Gilder’s Bosola is a brilliantly earthy presence and James Garnon’s Cardinal, with his dry unforced stillness, tickles the imagination.
Gemma Arterton as the Duchess took a long time to grow on me. For much of the play, she has a porcelain immovable beauty that left me cold. But in the second half, she showed the fire and fortitude one expects from the role.
And yet, despite the production’s many virtues, I felt vaguely dissatisfied. Something about the approach feels like a straitjacket. The hellish imagery only occasionally took hold (most notably in the scene where the Duchess comes face to face with the lunatics sent by her brother). But otherwise, the production felt buttoned down, careful. It made me wish for a careless leap of faith.