The Duchess Of Malfi
Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Duchess Of Malfi

Gemma Arterton is luminous in this intimate staging of John Webster’s classic in a new, candlelit theatre

Written by Georgina Brown
georgina-brown 2805Regular readers will know that Shakespeare’s outdoor Globe Theatre, lashed by the elements on London’s South Bank, is not my favourite venue. I love the building but not the backache the benches invariably prompt. I don’t mind the deafening helicopters and screaming sirens. I enjoy the raucous spontaneity of those standing in the pit.

It is the lighting that ruins the place for me, floodlights as crude as those in a football stadium. And they have nothing to do with Health & Safety – Shakespeare’s famous ‘O’ is wooden with a thatched roof – but a drive for authenticity, a heritage approach to theatre I’m not a fan of. We have a different aesthetic now, especially when it comes to lighting, which not only creates atmosphere but focuses attention.

So I have been eagerly awaiting the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse next door to the Globe, a replica of an indoor Jacobean theatre, and lit by candles, one flickering flame or dozens from candelabra ascending and descending from the ceiling, handheld lanterns, sconces on the pillars, the theatre’s shutters opened or shut – whatever the drama calls for.

And the gorgeous theatre itself doesn’t disappoint. Built of pale oak, with a painted gilded ceiling, which glitters in the candlelight, a minstrels’ gallery above the thrust stage, it resembles an exquisite musical jewel box. It couldn’t be more intimate. A touch too cosy actually: 340 people sardined on to benches apparently designed for the vertically challenged.

John Webster’s famously gory Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess Of Malfi, filled with gruesome scenes involving severed limbs, macabre wax figures, bloody corpses and a gang of released lunatics, is surely the perfect play to set the theatre alight.

Never before have I noticed that the Duchess is frequently referred to in terms of light and throughout, Gemma Arterton’s lovely duchess shines in the shadows like a good deed in a naughty world, though the candelabra frequently blocked the view from my perch in the Upper Gallery. Actors tend to come to this role with all guns blazing. An understated Arterton is wholly convincing as a woman in love, caught up in a scurrilous world, a sister betrayed by her brothers, a mother whose first thought is for her babies. Dragged off to her death, she asks her maid to ‘Give my little boy some syrup for his cold.’ It breaks your heart.

David Dawson is superb as her twitchy, pervy twin Ferdinand, but otherwise Dominic Dromgoole’s bloodless revival neither chills nor thrills. Too many candles, too little darkness.

Until 16 February at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: 020-7401 9919,


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