BY JOHN WEBSTER
DIRECTED BY REBECCA FRECKNALL
ALMEIDA THEATRE 30 NOV 2019 - 25 JAN 2020
Images Top left to right Lydia Wilson; Khalid Abdalla; Jack Riddiford; Bottom left to right: Leo Bill; Shalini Peiris; Ioanna Kimbook. Photos Marc Brenner.
It is a Webster tragedy and it is the turbulent seventeenth century, so expect verbosity, slaughter and high-octane melodrama. Associate Director at the Almeida, Rebecca Frecknall, takes no prisoners in presenting this latest version of The Duchess of Malfi which is a veritable bloodbath. How close she sticks to the original script remains the privilege of academics, but it appears to be largely untampered.
The Duchess of Malfi begins with the brothers of the Duchess intent on preventing their widowed sister remarrying. Her favourite brother Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) is determined she doesn’t remarry; alas his passion lies in insanity. However, the Duchess (Lydia Wilson; Olivier Award-nominated performance in King Charles III) is besotted by Antonio (Khalid Abdalla), and marries him in secret. When her marriage and subsequent progeny are uncovered there is a veritable bloodbath.
At times the rush of speechifying in the Jacobean vernacular can tie the plot into knots for a contemporary audience. This is compounded by the leap of faith required in a play brimming with subterfuge and affront from all sides. There are moments of improbability. The very reason why remarrying is such treachery lies dormant. Presumably, it is to do with the brothers retaining power over their widowed sister and her domain. Grief and fury are explored at great length whilst years of clandestine marriage and progeny (suddenly there are four children) are uncovered as if in passing.
Fortunately, Frecknall presents the play in a pointedly helpful manner. The cast emphasise in the right places and props are deployed cleverly. In the end, it is possible to gauge what is being said by getting the gist and there is an occasional millennial interject when the going gets tough.
And, the Almeida is certainly honing in on remarkable, moveable sets. From the phosphorescent greenhouse in The Hunt and the rain-drenched garden in Albion, this time designer Chloe Lamford brings a large-as-life, neon-lit, glass changing-room to the stage behind which the actors scheme and murder.
Khalid Abdalla’s sophisticated interpretation of Antonia makes a curious match for Lydia Wilson’s modern, young Duchess in boho designer gowns (to die for) with a cropped, bleached, ponytail. Whilst Wilson will doubtlessly reap praise for her unfettered and passionate delivery, Abdalla deserves the highest of accolades for his mature approach. Under Frecknall’s skill for updating classics, the notable cast give it all they’ve got and leave a gripped audience reeling.
Cast: Khalid Abdalla; Hadassah Allen; Leo Bill; Jersey Blu Georgia; Ioanna Kimbook; Michael Marcus; Ciarán Owens; Shalini Peiris; Jack Riddiford; Jethro Skinner; Kalungi Ssebandeke; Lydia Wilson
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