Wednesday, 14 March 2012

You'll Find It Impossible To Fly Your Fate - The Duchess of Malfi

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed below are mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the company. As with all my insider reviews, call me biased if you want, but I wouldn't write about a show I'm working on if I didn't enjoy it.

It has happened again. Galleon Theatre Company have taken me completely by surprise with their latest production, The Duchess of Malfi. Despite having been partial to a number of planning conversations with Bruce Jamieson (the director) and Alice De Sousa (the producer), I was under the impression that we were doing a traditional, classical Jacobean tragedy. Even after the first read-through I still believed so. When will I learn that that is simply not Galleon's style???

The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster and first performed 400 years ago is of course a classic Jacobean tragedy, full of betrayal and murder, but though our production uses modern dress, it's direction is sensational enough that I believe it would hold the attention of its original audiences in 1614.

And tis a fitting bang with which the Galleon Theatre Company will be leaving the Greenwich Playhouse for good, dividing the critics and sending audience members fleeing from the auditorium in tears, hopefully a production we will be remembered for.

Ferdinand and the Cardinal
The play documents a family's undoing at it's own hands. A sister is left widowed by the Duke of Malfi, and her two brothers, the cruel and immoral Cardinal and the sadistically unhinged Lord Ferdinand, wish to secure her fortune for their own use by forbidding her to remarry, leaving the slime-ball Bosola to watch over her.
But of course the wilful and passionate Duchess will not be dictated to, and the ultimate result is the death of pretty much everyone, as one would expect from any Jacobean tragedy worth it's salt.

Bruce Jamieson's adaptation of The Duchess of Malfi as always cuts to the heart of a select few story lines, allowing the audience a much easier and dramatic journey through the story. Aided by Natasha Piper's modern day-ish costume choices it is made clear that many of the themes explored in the play are still more than relevant today.

Cariola at the mercy of Bosola and Castruchio
As expected, there has been some outcry at the portrayal of women in this production, something which amuses me. Those that have protested seem to forget the fact that this story was written four centuries ago, when women were considered the possessions of their husbands, fathers or brothers, and in order to gain any amount of freedom oft had to take measures into their own hands using the only guile they had available to them; their femininity. The women of The Duchess of Malfi also suffer a great deal of abuse at the hands of men. However, the story is not so outdated that such issues are not translatable to a modern day audience.

The company for this production have proven outstanding. We were lucky to have some Galleon regulars join us for this final show, as well as some brilliant new additions to the company. Charlotte Randell's minimalistic set design makes excellent use of the space with rich curtains enhancing the pretence of civility in the first half of the show, and the amazing painting on the studio's back wall as stark evidence that everything is crumbling to ruin in the second half. Philip Jones's lighting design starts bright and cheerful, growing gradually more shadowed and dark as the plot thickens. Jamieson's selection of music to underscore the action, expertly edited by Robert Gooch, sparks off and reinforces the emotion generated by the cast. 

The Duchess
Alice De Sousa, producer and co-founder of the Galleon Theatre Company, takes the title role of the show with the same passion and fire she gives to all her endeavours. And that passion has been her greatest advocate over the recent weeks as De Sousa has been balancing her role in the show, with the ongoing campaign to find the company a new home, as well as negotiations with her film company and other businesses.
The Cardinal

Bruce Jamieson is the only choice for the irreverent Cardinal of Aragon. Heavily tattooed and not adverse to a spot of BDSM, Jamieson's portrayal is bold and loud and has no problem using his societal position for his own purposes.

Duke Ferdinand
Robin Holden (Hamlet in September 2011) returns to the company playing the younger brother Ferdinand. A little obsessed with his sister, his lust for treasure and the Duchess's seeming betrayal sends him on a rapid downfall into madness and lycanthropia, ultimately being responsible for the death of both his siblings. While Holden had to act a little crazed as Hamlet last year, the contrast between these two roles is great, and his switch from overbearing devotion to his sister to cowering pup under his brothers gaze is a delight to watch.

Daniel De Bosola
Another regular Galleonite, Damian Quinn, takes on the role of Daniel De Bosola with an aplomb that would be at home with the RSC. Although you know Bosola is one of the bad guys you can't help but like him, with his cheeky asides to the audience and impudent opinions of those that pay for his services. Quinn masterfully carries off Bosola's gradual development of a conscience, which results in him being one of only two characters left alive at the end. Not the way this story traditionally pans out, but it works.

Lord Stamford sorry Derek I mean Darren Stamford has been promoted from trusty sidekick Horatio in last years Hamlet to the Duchess's love interest Antonio, and he plays the part brilliantly. One of my favourite parts of this show is watching the tender and playful interactions between the Duchess and her secret second husband. Stamford's Antonio is simply an honest and good fellow who wants nothing more than to protect his wife and child, and his reaction to the news of the Duchess's death is one of the most genuine performances in this production.

The Duchess's companion, Cariola, played by Emma Grace Arends, is such a sweet and innocent little character that she almost seems out of place among the darkness and betrayal of the story. A delightful troublemaker backstage, Arends is a joy to watch, especially in the background, where her performance is as faithful as when she delivers her lines. Cariola's semi-witnessed death is by far the most harrowing in the production, to the extent I've been known to miss a lighting cue that shortly follows it.

Alexander Neal, playing Delio, is another great addition to Galleon Theatre Company. Delio is one of those characters where you're not entirely sure what to make of him. Being Antonio's best friend you hope he's one of the good guys but his dealings and connections do make you wonder from time to time, and Neal gladly plays with this concept throughout. Ultimately, he is one of the hero's of the show, taking part in and surviving the final slaughter scene and it is his reaction to this that gives you a clear sense of his character. When all the violence is done with, reality hits him and he collapses, delivering one of the most poignant lines of the play. 

The Doctor and Castruchio
Barry Clarke is back doing what he does best; the comic relief. Though both the characters he plays in The Duchess of Malfi are amusing, they have their darker sides that Clarke gleefully toys with. As Castruchio, an ambitious but dull-witted politician, he's a fine old cuckold who's wife will gladly go off with most any man, yet he has no qualms being involved in the almost rape of Cariola at Bosola's hands. As Ferdinand's Doctor, the comedy is in his demise due to his overconfidence in his abilities, while his blood spattered appearance and manipulation of his patient is oh-so sinister.

However some of the best performances in the show come from three gentlemen with barely a handful of lines between them.

The Cardinal's Men
Alex Reece (left), Phil Gerrard (centre) and Martin Foreman (right) form three fantastic groups; the Cardinal's men, the executioners and the Doctor's keepers.
Their ominous and menacing presence keeps the audience on their toes. As the characters have no names, I hope it's clear that here I refer to the characters rather than the actors themselves. Alex you know must have been some bully's muscle at school, Phil has somehow ended up as the bitch of the trio, though he's no less scary, and Martin is the really quite creepy ringleader.
The keepers
I truly hope that these three return in future Galleon productions so we can see what more they've got for us.

This, sadly, is the last production that will be produced and presented at the Greenwich Playhouse due to it's closure in April. At present we do not have a new home to move to. For more information on the closure, and how you can be of help please read the press release on the Galleon Theatre Company website.

The Duchess of Malfi is performing until March 18th at The Greenwich Playhouse. Tickets are available here.

All photo's courtesy of Robert Gooch.