For those hankering after some gritty seventeenth-century theatre, this is an excellent production of John Webster’s compelling and frequently grizzly play, The Duchess of Malfi. UCLU rise impressively to the task of performing one of the greatest tragedies ever written. There’s misogyny, murder and some brilliant writing from Shakespeare’s lesser-known contemporary. And four hundred years after it was written, The Duchess of Malfi still enthrals.
Starting out as an ominously touching love story between a beautiful young widow, the Duchess of Malfi, and a courtier, Antonio, tension rises as the duchess defies the warnings of her sinister brothers not to remarry – which she does in secret. Meanwhile more is revealed about the brothers: one is a dissolute and hypocritical cardinal, the other, Lord Ferdinand, is violent and increasingly unstable. Thanks to the repellent servant, Bosola, things rapidly darken when her brothers learn of the deception; even by the standards of the 1600s it all gets very messy from here.
Although people may be less familiar with The Duchess of Malfi, the production was easy to follow and succeeded in putting the audience on the edge of their seats right from the start. There was a collective intake of breath, for example, when the Duchess revealed her secret to Bosola. Partly this is because all actors were very well cast, with some true chemistry between Antonio and the Duchess to make the play genuinely moving. But also, it’s because Webster’s brilliant writing is allowed to shine through.
It’s a shame that the venue was cramped and stifling hot, but the cast powered on with an impressive display of professionalism that made it worth staying for. Another issue was the slightly fuzzy sound quality and a very limited set, but these minor issues were easy to forget as the plot, words and acting sucked you in. There was also some great lighting which did much to contribute to the overall atmosphere of menace.
In limited surroundings UCLU have put together a captivating production, which manages to raise some interesting and still contemporary issues about gender roles and the power-play between them. All performers were clearly immersed in their characters enough to make them thoroughly believable. This play is an entirely rewarding experience… just don’t look for a happy ending.