The Duchess of Malfi
by John Webster
Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse, The Globe, London
Friday 14th February 2014 19.30
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
See also review of Jamie Lloyd’s Old Vic production in 2012 which has much more on the plot and historical background of the play (SEE LINK). I’m also drawing comparisons.
The theatre itself is supposed to be the star. This is the first production in the Globe’s new indoor theatre, of a play which in 1613 probably debuted in the Blackfriars indoor theatre. The Sam Wanamaker Theatre seats 340, and is a beautifully decorated and intimate space aiming to emulate Jacobean indoor theatres. Not only that, it’s candlelit, though they have daylight panels downstairs representing the windows of the private theatres, but these are used extremely sparingly. They are interested in incorporating Jacobean production, and discovering how it was done by the actors carrying candles, lighting candles after dark scenes and so on. Even the Duchess of Malfi has to help light candles. This gives it an air of re-enactment, in the way that TV can no longer mention anything historical in a documentary without having a costumed thespian act it out. The Globe does it on the main stage too, but it’s functional here so intrusive, not a mere decoration.
The first issue is the upper gallery. When they lower the candles, which are in seven sets of candelabra, it’s supposed to be daylight, or maybe a brightly lit palace. Where we were sitting 90% of the cast were obscured totally down to waist height and you are just staring at banks of flickering lights. It’s horrible to watch until the candles are lifted higher. I also noticed that a lot of humorously-placed lines got laughter from downstairs where they could see the faces, but very little reaction from those of us gazing at massed flickers with say only one out of six actors visible. Frankly, the candlelight doesn’t work for at least 25% of the play if you’re sitting upstairs. They used seven candelabra in the first act, mainly four in the second, where they were also placed higher for the dark and gloomy murders. Actors walk about with candlesticks, mainly containing four candles. The candelabra are raised and lowered, and after a few productions they may work out a better way of using them and positioning them with regard to sightlines from upstairs. They add to the problem by having Antonio in a hat – that’s demanded by the text – but the brim removes any chance of seeing his face from above. Add hard backless benches with little legroom, people’s backs at foot level rather than(say) a hard surface that you can put your feet against, and it is an extremely uncomfortable experience (though well raked … no staring at the backs of heads) AND you can’t see very well for much of the time because of the candles, so much so that we both said, ‘Never again!’ as we left. Well, it would have to be an unmissable play and seats downstairs. There should be a theme park style warning about people with back problems. I didn’t have one when I went in. I certainly did when I came out.
So the theatre as the star got a resounding thumbs down. Great to look at, but a badly compromised working space if you’re upstairs. Then we get the production. Was it a good idea, less than two years after the Jamie Lloyd directed Old Vic production, which was magnificent, a spectacle, and truly chilling? This production focussed more on the Duchess /Antonio love affair, less on the nasty brothers, well, that was because of the stars: Gemma Arterton and Alex Waldmaan. Gemma is a lovely duchess, younger and softer than the Old Vic. But less regal and less powerful. Like the Old Vic production, the play was heavily cut, but differently cut too. It showed the play from a different angle and aspect.
Alex Waldmaan is Antonio Bologna, the steward who secretly weds the Duchess. As he was so successful in Stratford in 2013 as Orlando in As You Like It, Bernardo in All’s Well That Ends Well, and Horatio in Hamlet, I was predicting him taking on the Jonathan Slinger role: dominating the lead parts for a couple or three years at the RSC. Given Bernardo and Orlando, this one is almost stereotypical casting for him. Too predictable, too based on what he did so well last year rather than expanding into new areas.
Ferdinand, Cardinal, Duchess: three siblings
The production lacked the movement, set, lighting, dance, tableaux, spectacle, horror and sexuality of the Jamie Lloyd production. Above all it lacked menace. We thought it tame, and lacklustre, and also it didn’t know whether it was tragedy or comedy at times. That can be good, but they got big laughs from modern or unexpected phrasing on lines, especially with the Cardinal at the end. After he murders his mistress by having her kiss a poisoned bible, he instructs Bolsano ‘Say she died of … mm … the plague? The sudden rising question intonation on ‘the plague’ was perfectly timed and very funny. I love getting unexpected humour in this way, but it does undermine the chill of the moment, then the mass slaughter at the end, when the cardinal’s hapless plea ‘Mercy???’ also got a big laugh. James Garnon as the Cardinal has excellent comic timing, but wasn’t given enough opportunity to show his lustful side, nor was he particularly frightening. Why did they drop the Cardinal’s robes halfway too and put him in normal Jacobean dress? OK, add that it lacked the costume quality of the Old Vic as well. There’s something about a lusty murderous cardinal in full red robes that is more powerful and impressive than a guy in black with a small cross on a chain. Maybe they were mindful of that Venetian ambassador who saw it in 1618 (quoted in the programme) who thought the play anti-Catholic. It was written in Jacobean England. It was meant to be. The poisoned bible was also a known Borgia papal device for murder.
Anyway, some of the tragedy came off as pantomime because of playing for laughs. I’m sure they were trying to discover the original Jacobean style, and the small space allowed them to do the Ferdinand / Duchess scene where he hands her a cold dark amputated hand in total blackness. Much was made of this in reviews. But you can do that with electric lights too. And there are other 200-300 seat areas, like the Donmar Warehouse for intimacy. They used a waxwork tableaux as in the script for the dead bodies. None of the murders were as real or as nasty as 2012.
Ferdinand is naturally the best part in the play (David Dawson), but he was loud and psychopathic rather than cunningly evil and psychopathic. Yes, he brought out the incest theme, but that’s in the text, and also Ferdinand was more dribblingly foul in the 2012 one. I didn’t find either brother, nor the hired Bosola as nasty or as threatening as last time I saw the play.
Neither of us enjoyed it. Partly discomfort, partly poor view, and partly having someone right next to us blowing their nose snottily every five minutes which is not the production’s fault. Though as I type this I am hoping it was allergic reaction to the strong smell of beeswax candle rather than a cold. I found I had sore itchy eyes afterwards which is a reaction I get to candles at home and in restaurants, though maybe it was staring at flickering lights. It was fascinating as theatre history rather than as a play by Webster. I’m mildly pleased to have seen what Jacobean punters might have seen, though most of them were nearer 5 foot tall than 6, like me, so less cramped. Authentic re-staging does not run to authentic toilet facilities for example, so why does it run to benches?
This version was too soon after the Old Vic 2012 production, but not anywhere near as good. I think that’s true of every aspect, though the altered angle made more of Antonio’s role, so that was perhaps enhanced in this one. To me, it was misguided starter which was too academic on researching the theatre of 1613 at the expense of providing a memorable entertainment.
First-rate, as expected at The Globe.
As ever the public facilities at the Globe are spacious (outside the theatre itself) and exemplary.
I read The Stage (26 April 2014) interviewing Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of The Globe and director of this play. I really don’t think he had found this blog, and other people have criticized the flickering candelabra. But … Quote:
Among those criticizing the new venue was one critic who complained about having to watch the show through the flickering of the candelabra upstairs. “He wrote this insane piece of outrage, but that’s what you have to do if you’re upstairs. Samuel Pepys wrote about it, to, but you can adjust your head two inches to the left or right and have a great evening. Or you can stew in your own discontent at the universe.”
With respect, that’s absolute bollocks. The entire row was craning from side to side, and it makes not a jot of difference whether you can move two inches or two metres with that many candles between you and the action. As I said, we could see only one actor out of six above the waist. Most tellingly, we could hear the laughs and gasps from downstairs, but upstairs was dead silent because no one, not just us, could see what those downstairs were laughing at.
When I’ve spoken to large audiences, often in hotel meeting rooms, I always set up my videos to run, then went and sat next to pillars, in corners, at the extreme sides to test the viewpoint. Has Mr Dromgoole actually done that during a production? Has he done it during a production of something he has not directed? After all, if you’ve directed it you know every line, gesture and expression and your brain fills in the gaps. Sorry, with all the candelabra lit and positioned as they were, this theatre does not work for drama for most of those sitting upstairs. Maybe that’s why they seem to be filling it with music.
The Duchess of Malfi – 2014 by John Webster, Wanamaker Playhouse (Antonio Bologna)
As You Like It, RSC 2013 (Orlando)
Al’s Well That Ends Well, RSC 2013 (Bertram)
Hamlet, RSC 2013 (Horatio)
Richard III, RSC 2012 (Catesby)
Wars of The Roses: Henry VI, Rose Kingston (Henry VI)
Wars of The Roses: Edward IV, Rose Kingston (Henry VI)
Wars of The Roses: Richard III, Rose Kingston (Tyrell)
King John, The Globe 2015 (The Bastard)