January 09, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (Blood and Thunder) @ Hall's Croft, Stratford–upon–Avon (archive video)

Writing about web page http://bloodandthundertheatre.org.uk/

I'm beginning the year with a binge of EM drama film recordings, including Greenwich Theatre's Volpone, Kozintsev's Hamlet, Taymor's Tempest, Doran's Winter's Tale and Fiennes's Coriolanus, one or two of which I may review here. One pleasure of this quiet patch is the chance to finally catch up with a production I missed in the summer owing to my travels - Blood and Thunder Theatre Company's outdoor production of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.

I can't really give it a proper review, as it only survives on an archive video that, unfortunately, was recorded on a rather blustery day at the expense of audibility. However, the production exemplifies Blood and Thunder's approach - an intimate, fluid and fluent version, stripped down to some basic props and sumptuous costumes, set against the rather splendid backdrop of Hall's Croft.

The simple setting allowed the performances to come to the fore, most obviously in a fun wooing scene between Kelley Costigan's austere but playful Duchess and Jose A. Perez Diez's upstanding Antonio. What the production (directed by Maria Jeffries) clearly understood was the formalities of court and courtship, which were played up to and then dismantled for dramatic effect - the fun of this scene was in watching the two trade politenesses while coming longingly to their shared agreement, while Helen Osborne's furtive Cariola his behind an arras, pointing up the staged quality of the Duchess's scene.

I was less persuaded by the atmosphere of the piece - Malfi has always screamed dark and claustrophobic to me, and the airy setting made the plotting feel more public than I would ideally have liked (although a nice moment after the severed hand coup saw Ferdinand peeping out from the windows of the Tudor house). However, Steve Quick's Bosola made great use of the visibility of the audience, addressing his schemes to the assembled crowd and managing his unsuspecting victims. I appreciated the comic and militaristic feel of the character, as if Sir Toby or Parolles had discovered how to take over a play. This Bosola, towering over many of the other actors, was more physically imposing than might be expected, drawing attention to him from the start as the character to watch. Yet what marked this production was the evenness of its ensemble - if not drawn to Matt Kubus's almost fantastical Ferdinand, with plumed hat, we were conspiring with Antonio and Gareth Bernard's Delio or back once more with Bosola's compelling choric motions.

From the recording I found it hard to gauge tone and emphasis, so it was difficult to discern an overriding vision for the play. Anomalies in the text such as Delio's isolated encounter with Julia and the early ramblings of Castruccio were retained, keeping a reasonably full text rather than (as sometimes happens) focusing entirely on the primary plot. Yet what did begin to emerge was a sense of the very human relationships destroyed by events. This was particularly obvious in a moving parting scene between the Duchess and Antonio, which saw a tender but hopeless farewell followed immediately by the Duchess spitting defiance at the ever-swaggering Bosola.

As the play moved into the final two acts and the sun began setting, the tone shifted noticably from the domestic to the grotesque, as Ferdinand danced with the severed hand and the madmen pranced manically about the stage. An increasingly weary-looking Bosola stood in contrast to the hysterics as the deaths began mounting up, once more establishing him as the play's centre of gravity. Yet inevitably, it was in the littering of bodies at the play's bloody conclusion that the production finally satisfied, its characters convincingly bound up in events that they could rail at but ultimately not avoid.

A video is no substitute for the real thing, but it was a pleasure to finally see a version of the play and get a sense of Blood & Thunder's work. Keep an eye out for them surfacing in or near Stratford next summer, with any luck!


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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