Tuesday 21 January 2020

The Duchess of Malfi, or, Why is it largely set in a changing room?

Note: This is a review of the performance on Thursday 16h January 2020.

This was my third encounter with director Rebecca Frecknall. I was less convinced than others by her Summer and Smoke, and my rating of her approach was not improved by either this show or her recent Three Sisters. However, I should preface what follows by also saying that I've never really got on with the revenge tragedy, so perhaps that was part of the problem.

Frecknall and set designer Chloe Lamford's Malfi is blandly modern and sparsely furnished such that, not unlike that Summer and Smoke, there is little concrete sense of place. The main piece of set is a narrow enclosed box-like object which looks like a leisure centre changing room. It sits mostly at the back of the stage and then in the second half is moved squeakily forward and then back to little purpose. Around the edges of the stage are various desks and chairs in which, in a directorial tick that is in vogue and should cease to be, the performers sit when not in scenes. Finally there are two glass like cabinets to the side which turn out to contain the show's props. The supplying of props in this way adds a layer of artificiality which increasingly undermines belief in the world on stage. Frecknall also tends to allow scenes to run into each other in such a way that people who oughtn't to be able to see things are going on appear to be able to do so.

But the most serious problem is that changing room. It's a bizarre piece of setting in itself that never made sense to me in relation to the play. But it also has problematic effects on voices. As soon as performers are shut in it they have to be miked which flattens out any dynamic contrast and tends towards a shouting effect. Frecknall adds further gimmickry in this regard later on, when Leo Bill's Bosola delivers a whole scene into a handheld microphone.

Pacing is also an issue. Death takes forever to arrive in this production - after the 1hr20 minute first half everybody is still standing. When the violence finally starts after the interval we get some of the most unconvincing deaths I've seen. Matters culminate in an interminable dumb show. Structure also comes into it here. I've never seen the play before so it may be the flaws are integral to it, but it was often baffling to me why particular characters did particular things - just a few examples - the Duchess and Antonio deciding to separate just before the interval, the Duchess trusting Bosolo, and the baffling manner in which Antonio (spoiler) gets shot by Bosolo just before that dumb show.

The sad thing about all this is that marooned in this production there are performers showing potential. Lydia Wilson's Duchess and Khalid Abdalla's Antonio find some touching moments - particularly in their tentative declarations, and there's a nice energy to Abdalla's performance elsewhere - he has a feel for vocal dynamics lacking in many of the others. I was less convinced about Wilson's total performance - the voice often seemed to me to take odd inflections and in a crucial scene she starts shouting too early and ends up with nowhere to go. Michael Marcus and Jack Riddiford as the evil brothers both manage to give interesting individuality to their characters but are undermined by the broader context.

A woman in the row in front rose and cheered at the end and the run has pretty much sold out. I just wanted to escape. No need to queue for returns.

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