June 28, 2012

The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen) @ Greenwich Theatre [on DVD]

Writing about web page http://www.stageonscreen.com/the-duchess-of-malfi.php

A much briefer review to accompany my earlier piece on Stage on Screen's production of Doctor Faustus, this time of Elizabeth Freestone's The Duchess of Malfi. Cross-cast with the same company's Volpone, Freestone's take on Malfi is more straightforward than either, treating the play as a chamber piece in a lengthy full text (2hrs 40 mins) that will appeal to teachers looking for a solid recording of the play to use in classes, but never quite grips in its own right as a piece of theatre.

That's not to say there's anything wrong with the production. Set in a 1930s Europe, the production captures the tension of an approaching war and the politicking going on behind the scenes as a nation attempts to deal with its internal squabbles while simultaneously preparing itself to face the world. This is most clear as Mark Hadfield's Cardinal prepares himself to take on an active role in the conflict, adopting a uniform reminiscent of Italian fascists and wearing it with ease.

Freestone's production is centred around three fine performances. Aislin McGuckin's Duchess is a complex and inviting figure, seductive in her early scenes with Antonio and independent throughout. With Antonio she shows a confidence and allure that is entertaining even as it illustrates her immediate dominance over her environment; her recourse to mockery of her social status only serves to reaffirm it, to Antonio's pleasure. Her gradual unravelling at the hands of her brothers is realised extremely effectively, particularly in the scene of the madmen torturing her. Surrounded by singing, staring men in straitjackets, some of whom escape their confines and run straight at her, she is reduced to a sobbing wreck, yet still with a strained dignity that allows us to see her resolve even as it is tested to breaking point. Her final death, stretched out on the floor as two men pull long cords around her neck, leaving her splayed centrestage, is particularly traumatic.

Tim Steed gives an intense performance as Ferdinand, brooding and internalised, but lashing out at those around him. As the lycanthropia takes over, he becomes ever more dissociated from those around him, culminating in a fascinating image as he lies splayed across the floor promising that he will escort snails. Without moving into full animalistic performance, Steed's take on Ferdinand served to gradually dehumanise the character, turning him into a physical being barely capable of relating to those around him.

The play is dominated, however, by Tim Treloar's Bosola. Always active, Bosola's busy industry keeps him the centre of attention whenever he is on stage. Treloar kept a delicate balance throughout between the self-interested confidence that allows the character to be so useful to the play's sundry villains, and a compelling personal integrity that emerges particularly in his emotional breakdown over the Duchess's body. Physically formidable, and with a confidence of voice that enhanced his presence, the battle becomes almost one of equals as he takes on his superiors.

In some ways, that is perhaps the problem. With so many dominant men throughout the play, there is less range and variety of pace and tone than there could have been. This is perhaps one of the rare times when the screen aspect of Stage on Screen does not lend itself to nuance; with the actors performing to the live audience, the stage projection of their voices and gestures neuters the variation on the more intimate medium, giving an impression of uniform confidence and volume when clearer arcs for the characters would be desirable.

Nonetheless there is a great deal to enjoy here. The messy deaths of the Duchess's children, including one stabbed in a pram, are particularly disquieting; but the Echo scene, as Edmund Kingsley defies superstition and then shivers at the pertinent replies of the Duchess-like Echo, manages to both chill and move. Brigid Zengeni's Julia was also strong, barely able to keep her hands of Bosola as she ripped his shirt off during their love scene, and shocked as she tasted something unfortunate on the Cardinal's Bible before he shoved the book into her face and practically smothered her with it.

My disappointment with the production as a whole comes from its entirely predictable nature; it's a faithful, straightforward and fairly obvious interpretation. That is also its strength; we lack a good teaching resource for Malfi, and Stage on Screen's production fills a necessary gap. The formality of its setting and the consistent quality of the performances make this a slightly earnest enterprise, but thoroughly worthwhile in its scope, and the production works as a tragedy of intrigue and coiled tension.

Compared to Faustus, the interview material here is exceptional, with a much wider range of creatives interviewed, and individual interviews with the cast which make it much easier to select material. Where Freestone primarily described her own directorial career in the other interview, here she offers fantastic insights into the structure of the play and Webster's treatment of women, pointing out that the women are sidelined early on in the play, leaving the final scenes focused on the male characters (her entire male company were required for the final scene). The many crew interviews give insights into a range of roles within the production, though there is still sometimes a sense of this acting as careers advice for would-be stage mangers (for example). It's remarkable, however, that even the DSM and ASM get screentime, and telling about the essentially collaborative nature of this project. What elevates this set of DVDs, however, is the general attention to the play in the interview material, which makes the education packs well worth the extra expense.


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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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