Staged, January 2014
Broadcast on BBC 4, 25/05/14
The recording of the Jacobean drama, staged earlier this year at the Globe theatres new Jacobean playhouse, is a bewitching production. Lit entirely by candlelight, it makes excellent and dramatically effective use of light and shadow, creating a dreamlike and violent world within the confines of the stage.
The story, simply put, is that of the Duchess, who remarries in defiance of her brothers. This simple act unleashes the rage of her incestuous twin Ferdinand (David Dawson). Along with Tis pity she’s a whore, Malfi is one of two Jacobean dramas that seem to resonate strongly for our own time. The treatment of corruption, power, romance, gothic horror and a central powerful heroine speaks to a modern audience as strongly as it ever has.
Gemma Arterton is mesmerising in the main role, depicting the Duchess as a flighty young girl forced to mature by the ensuing tragedy. Dawson gives an unusually pliant and fragile depiction as Ferdinand, portraying him as a psychotic man-child, vulnerable, petulant and dangerous. Sean Gilders Bosola plays off well against him as a gruff, introspective killer in the pay of a moneyed epicurean. James Garnon plays the Cardinal with a sort of nonchalant malevolence.
The production is complemented by excellent and well-researched music, courtesy of Claire Van Kampen, and some well-choreographed dance scenes. The essential ingredient of the play- the sense of tragedy – is properly conveyed through the atmosphere. During the Duchesses imprisonment, the direction gave the sense of having stepped into someone else’s nightmare; the dance of madmen, the ‘votive’ posing of her families corpses, the executioners who bear such a strong resemblance to Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In surroundings like this, you can properly appreciate the Duchess’s inner strength in the face of her persecutors.
The action falters a little in the final scenes, which deal with the fallout of her murder, but there is a feeling of unrolling inevitability about the final coup-de-grace. Bosolas revenge on the brothers is set within a tragicomic world as opposed to the Duchess’s wholly tragic one. Ferdinand rushes shrieking and growling about the stage; the madness we have sensed beneath the surface has now utterly consumed him. James Garnons’ Cardinal has a particular kind of malevolence. Shifted to the foreground in the last quarter of the play, Garnon plays the Cardinal with a lightness and humour that is ultimately very effective; This is a man, you feel, who does not even have the decency to take his own evil seriously. Nonchalantly plotting and killing his way through the last act, Garnon goes out on a joke among the corpses of those who have fallen victim, ultimately, to his actions. An irony that encapsulates the brilliance of this excellent production.