The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The Globe’s newly built Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is an exquisite space. Named after the man whose tireless ambition gave London back its Shakespearean theatre, the intimate oak-clad confines imitate the Jacobean-style arena where Shakespeare’s company performed over 400 years ago in Blackfriars.
Designed by architect Jon Greenfield, the compact chamber with two galleries, pit and thrust stage is an intricate maze of pale wood. The deep blue ceiling sparkles with gold stars and wide-eyed cherubs. Most striking are the hoards of beeswax candles which flicker in huge candelabra raised and lowered on rope pulleys, and glow in rustic pewter holders held by the cast. Their light, often the sole illumination on stage, pervades the darkness with a warm radiance. The stage appears chasmal by the dusky shadows cast by these naked flames. It’s the perfect setting for a play as dark and tragic as The Duchess of Malfi.
John Webster’s drama tells the disastrous fate of the virtuous and recently widowed Duchess. After remarrying her steward Antonio and baring his children against her brothers’ (the Cardinal and Ferdinand’s) consent, the two siblings vow to tear her from this marital bliss. Helped by the sly Daniel de Bosola they concoct a plan to torture and kill the Duchess for her shameful behaviour. Their actions however descend them into madness and in true Jacobean fashion; they too meet a grizzly end at the hands of a dagger.
One of the earliest and greatest dramatic female roles, Gemma Arterton plays the Duchess of Malfi with poise and dignity, portraying the Duchess in all her multifaceted glory. Her tender, maternal nature shines in Arterton’s radiant visage; her playful wooing of Antonio demonstrates her coy wit, while Arterton’s measured tone reveals the Duchess’ absolute defiance in the face of death. Sean Guilder gives a fine performance as the embittered, Machiavellian Bosola, allowing his humanity to finally shine through at the play’s macabre conclusion. James Garnon brims with dry black humour and Denise Gough is perfect as the Cardinal’s lascivious mistress.
It is David Dawson’s Ferdinand, however, who really shines. Contorting his impish face into malevolent grimaces with rolling eyes and pulsing temples, his spiralling insanity is vivid and powerful. The glinting candles only serve to accent the perversity etched in his face and make his morbid tricks with madmen and gruesome waxworks all the more terrifying.
Under the adept direction of Dominic Dromgoole the sadistic depravity of Webster’s drama is brought to life with horrifying beauty. It’s a dazzling first show for this stunning theatre.
The Duchess of Malfi is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 16th February 2014, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the building of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse here: