It feels as though I’ve been waiting for the Globe’s new Jacobean theatre forever; I can’t remember when its construction was announced, but it seems to have taken an age. At last it has arrived, and what better production to inaugurate this beautiful new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (named after the founder of the modern Globe) than John Webster’s classic, The Duchess of Malfi?
I am hugely fond of this play: it might be over the top and full of brutality, but it has memorable characters, beautiful language, and is eminently quotable. I was lucky enough to study it for A Level, which I think gave me a bit more insight and understanding. This is the third production of the play I’ve seen, and I haven’t tired of it yet.
I’ll go hunt the badger by owl-light; ’tis a deed of darkness
The new theatre has been designed to be as authentic as possible. This means, wonderfully, that it is lit by candles. I have no idea how they got this past Health & Safety, but I’m so glad they did. Chandeliers are lowered and raised from the ceiling, lit and snuffed out as the occasion requires it. Characters bring in their own candlesticks, which is especially effective in the darker scenes. In one particularly atmospheric moment at the beginning of the second half, the theatre is plunged into darkness. This is The Duchess of Malfi as it was meant to be performed – I can imagine a Jacobean audience gasping in terror as the flickering candles reveal the supposed bodies of Antonio and his son, grotesquely presented to the terrified Duchess. Panels on the walls of the theatre let in natural light when required, but most of the time, the candles rule. The fact that the theatre is extremely small, and the pit seats at least are immensely close to the stage, lends an unsurpassed intimacy to the play. I was so engrossed I hardly noticed the discomfort of the lightly-padded wooden seats.
I do account this world a tedious theatre; / For I do play a part in it ‘gainst my will
This traditional-dress production is full-length and absorbing throughout. Among the cast are some of the Globe’s regulars, including James Garnon as a coldly malevolent Cardinal, and Sarah MacRae as the Duchess’ warm-hearted servant, Cariola. Sean Gilder’s Bosola is a mercenary malcontent who is overcome by the Duchess’ dignified persona, while Denise Gough is excellent as the spirited Julia.
Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young
Gemma Arterton is superb as the stately, poised Duchess, revealing a sympathetic warmth to one of the best female characters in Jacobean drama. David Dawson is fantastic as her brother Ferdinand, clearly on the verge of madness as the play begins, obviously desirous of incest with his sister, and chilling towards the end as he descends into insanity.
Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust
Where Dominic Dromgoole’s production excels is in the sense of intimacy it produces. In particular, during the scene in the Duchess’s chamber when she, Antonio and Cariola are conversing, we get a sense of the true love and depth of the couple’s relationship, which means it is all the more tragic when the Duchess is taken by her brothers. It’s easy to laugh at the over the top nature of the play, but in this production, you are left really feeling for the characters.
The play continues until the middle of February. I believe it is sold out, but keep an eye out for returns – it is certainly worth it.