This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub
Fury. Forbidden love. Bloody murder. That is what is promised by the blood-spattered posters for Nottingham Playhouse’s production of The Duchess Of Malfi. It does not disappoint. John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy-cum-revenge-thriller is here brought to life by director Fiona Buffini with exhilarating panache in a vivid and stylish interpretation that owes as much to its intelligent design as it does to its sensitive performances.
Beatriz Romilly plays the eponymous Italian noblewoman, whose secret marriage to worthy Antonio (Jamie Satterthwaite) provokes the anger of her villainous brothers, the fierce Ferdinand (Chris Jared) and the slimy Cardinal (Patrick Brennan). Matthew Wait is Bosola, the rugged, mercenary spy employed by Ferdinand to investigate the Duchess’ forbidden love, with tragic – and frankly Tarantino-esque – results.
There is, in truth, not one weak link in the cast. Satterthwaite embodies the honesty and virtue of Antonio well, but also finds a shy awkwardness that amuses as much as it endears. Both Jared and Brennan are equally competent, the former oozing a dangerous confidence and the latter embracing an effective sleazy debauchery. Rebecca Sarker has fun as the slinky, sex-mad Julia as well.
It is Wait and Romilly that impress most, however, in two nuanced, layered performances. Romilly – attempting in Buffini’s words ‘one of the greatest female parts written in theatre’ – captures the Duchess’ playful, alluring charm well, yet always maintains an inner steel that comes to the fore when things take a decided turn for the worst. Wait is a brusque, bearded Bosola who, despite an ostentatious heartlessness, undoubtedly has a moral compass buried deep inside.
These confident performances are perfectly complemented by award-winning designer Neil Murray’s sparse, yet enormously evocative, set. Murray appears to have mastered the art of planting just a few seeds on stage from which the audience can imagine a whole forest. All that is needed are a few sweeping sashes of rich fabric and some candles, and the opulent palace at Malfi is there before the audience. All that is needed is a statue of Christ and a red carpet, and an echoing Catholic cathedral is raised on stage. Murray’s design is simple but achingly stylish and effective. The contributions of Mark Jonathan and Jon Nicholls, lighting and sound designers respectively, should not go unmentioned either.
The Duchess Of Malfi is a decidedly meaty play. Webster was not shy in his choice of theme: female empowerment, class disputes, sexual deviance, the endurance of the human spirit – all are present in great big dollops and Buffini’s production manages to embrace them all. One wonders whether her championing of the play’s enduring relevance is a little misguided – it is a little difficult to relate to the Jacobean gender politics that bubble underneath throughout, for example – but in a production of such quality, this hardly matters.