I’d heard about Webster’s 17th century drama The Duchess of Malfi, but had never read the script or seen a production of the play before watching Phoenix Theatre’s adaptation on Thursday night at Mark Hillery Theatre, Collingwood College. One might imagine melodramatic soliloquies, lavish and flamboyant Renaissance costumes, larger-than-life characters and emotions. Instead, I was presented with a study of dark desires and twisted psychology, an immersive experience of film noir, and, as the programme states, a fusion of Renaissance drama and the aesthetic of Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet, courtesy of the director Rahul Shah.
Rather than adhering to the traditional presentation of the classic work, Phoenix’s production takes an innovative approach to the play’s staging and structure, transforming a melodrama into an atmospheric psycho thriller. Before the play begins, audience entering the theatre are greeted by the sight of the Duchess, the title character played by Giorgia Laird, reclining in a lush armchair holding a wine glass in her hand and seemingly immersed in her own turbulent thoughts, setting a dark and mysterious atmosphere before the play even begins. The violet stage lights on Laird’s white dress present a striking visual image, and indeed the play is visually impressive throughout. Both acts began with elegant lounge singer Lily Spillane singing a solo and the silent appearance of one of the main characters on the opposite side of the stage, creating a movie-like quality and conveying a sense of the calm before the storm. The singer is an unexpected addition; however, Spillane’s voice is enchanting, and the songs help build the dreamy yet unsettling feeling on stage. Another notable alteration is that the final act of the play is shortened and presented using physical theatre consisting of gestures and mimes, the four actors walking towards their revenge and ultimate deaths as if part of a ballet. While the decision to represent the last act through silent movement is fascinating, the movements of actors and their tempo could have been designed more artfully and with less bluntness.
Similarly, the show’s visual presentation, its physical settings and the light and sound effects used, seek to bring out the universal themes in the play – desire, passion, love and sin – rather than evoke the particular time and space of the Renaissance Italian city court John Webster designated. The staging is minimalist, consisting of a writing desk and a chair on one side of the stage, and a coffee table with armchairs on the other side. It is the lighting effects that provide the change in scenes; the technical director Anna Bodrenkova has done a wonderful job of ensuring the lighting sets the atmosphere of each scene. Torches and spotlights are used to make the characters the focal points of different scenes, with the rest of the stage absorbed in darkness and uncertainty. The make-up done by Iz McGrady aids this modern characterisation by giving each character symbolic associations; the sinister cardinal appearing with exaggerated eyeliner and jewelry like a member of some Satanic cult or black metal band, and the courtiers flaunting painted faces in a fusion between glam rockers, disco queens and clowns. To contrast this, most of the main characters wear sombre, professional clothes consisting of modern suits and gowns; while these costumes work well on their own, there are times when characters dressed in different styles appear together on stage, to a rather confusing effect.
The acting in this play is professional and engaging. Giorgia Laird as the Duchess captures her character’s sympathetic and selfless heroism; her sincerity in pursuing her love at any cost contrasts starkly with the hypocrisy and cruelty of the characters surrounding her, and one could hardly help feeling touched by her sincerity as Bosola is within the play. Jacob Freda as Bosola does an impressive job of conveying probably the most complex character of the play, simultaneously condemning the immorality surrounding him while fulfilling the role of the henchman of the Duchess’ sinister brothers. This production plays on his role as the Duchess’ counterpart, and the play’s struggles between hypocrisy and sincerity, desire and love manifest themselves in his own internal conflicts played out in his soliloquies. Auguste Voulton as the Cardinal gives in my opinion the best performance in the show, sardonic yet sadistic, calm yet menacing. The arch-villain Ferdinand, played by Ben Willows, on the other hand, left me with more mixed feelings; his hysterical rages sometimes mesmerize, but at other times feel a little one dimensional, leaving the possibility for drawing out more complex characterisation in the tangled desires of the Duke.
Phoenix theatre has produced a complex and modern production of this classic play, placing emphasis on the exploration of human psychology, and focusing on overall atmosphere over linear narrative. To me, the attempt has succeeded wonderfully, if not quite totally. Still, Phoenix had begun the term with a triumph, and I highly recommend catching this show over the weekend.