John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a tricky play. The lovers hardly lay eyes on each other. The heroine – SPOILER – dies forty minutes before the end of the play. The sane go mad and the mad go madder. Pell Mell’s production of the play, currently playing at the New Diorama theatre, takes a simple clear approach. This is a maze where almost everyone is implicated in corrupting (and corrupted) power. Some of it works well and some of it less so.
In this version, the Duchess, played by Lucy Laing, seems as manipulating a force as her brothers, and although it’s not unreasonable approach to take, it leaves the production with nowhere to go. The Duchess is often petulant, self-centered and stringent, and the delivery of lines like “the misery of us that are born great!” has the tinge of whining. Later, when imprisoned by her brothers, the hardness thaws and she looks like a high-class call girl on her way down, an effect far more sympathetic than it sounds.
By comparison, Antonio, played by Callum Cameron, looks meek and tenderness in the relationship never materialises. Marie Fortune’s Cariola is a ray of warmth, but still it’s hard to understand why she stays so loyal.
Ferdinand, played with straightforward commitment by Tom Blyth, looks uncannily like Count Olaf (from the Lemony Snicket books), all arms and legs distorted in unlikely positions. Earlier in the year, the brilliant David Dawson looked like Pinocchio when he played the role at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse. Is there an trend for Ferdinand looking like a children’s character? Undoubtedly disturbing, although – I have to admit – The Duchess of Malfi is very much like a dark fairytale.
Matthew Leigh’s The Cardinal wears a dog collar (and I mean a real dog collar, not a clerical one) and his deviance on his sleeve. Mike Archer has an amusing, well observed turn as the Doctor.
Natalie York’s direction is clean with some interesting touches (for example, the madmen appear on the background as whispering voices rather than in a fully realised scene of their own). The production’s committment to a dark corrupted world is commendable, but it is achieved at the expense of a more shaded approach .
Till 23 August. Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes.