The Duchess of Malfi can't quite find its dark heart
By John Webster. Directed by Tariq Leslie. An Ensemble Theatre Company production. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Saturday, July 19. Continues in rep until August 15
They make a decent stab at it. And if you’re familiar with John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, you’ll know that it’s all about the stabbing.
Widowed, the beautiful young Duchess wants to marry her steward, Antonio, but that would not please her evil twin brother, Ferdinand, and their equally evil sibling, a high-ranking Catholic who is simply known by his title, the Cardinal. The boys want to get their hands on their sister’s riches, and a new husband would make that tricky, so they hire a court underling named Bosola to spy on her and, soon, to start slaughtering everybody who stands in their way.
Webster, who wrote this play in 1613, makes Quentin Tarantino look like a very tardy latecomer to perversity. Ferdinand has incestuous designs on the Duchess—you can hear it when he imagines her coupling with “some strong-thigh’d bargeman”—and he eventually loses his nut, believing himself to be a wolf and digging up bodies in graveyards. The slaughter extends to babies. And I won’t give away the goriest bits.
To realize the full potential of The Duchess of Malfi, you need to honestly access its emotional extremity and find a stylistic approach that evokes the profound darkness of the play’s world.
Director Tariq Leslie’s production for the Ensemble Theatre Company goes part way on the acting front. Ferdinand, the wolf man, is the plum role in this script, and in it Paul Herbert delivers the strongest work in this mounting, fully and credibly committing to Ferdinand’s lust and growing frenzy. Bosola, the spy and hit man, is also an intriguing character: although he commits horrific deeds, he aspires to morality. Troy Anthony Young, who plays Bosola here, takes us to the first level of understanding of the character, but he doesn’t have the command that would take us all the way.
There’s similarly limited success on other fronts. Alison Raine makes sense of the Duchess’s speech and motivations, but she’s emotionally contained, so the story’s brutality never really punches you in the heart. Always an intelligent actor, James Gill understands the Cardinal’s coldness, but the Cardinal’s sex scenes with his mistress, who’s played by Stephanie Elgersma, don’t get nearly as raunchy as they could. All of this said, it’s important to add that this is a non-Equity production and the roles in The Duchess of Malfi are very demanding.
Still, director Leslie could have served the script better. In an obvious thematic ploy, he begins his interpretation with a long procession of masked characters. His blocking is often uncertain. And the physical production is weak. The costumes by Chanel McCartney and Shelby Page are a hodgepodge. And Darren Hales’s lighting is far, far too bright.
The Duchess of Malfi is about the heart of darkness. This production locates the heartbeat, but the material demands complete exposure of the organ.