The Duchess of Malfi marks the last production at Greenwich Playhouse (find out why here) and, appropriately (given the circumstances) tells a tale of ruthlessness running roughshod over those without the power to defend themselves.
400 years old now, John Webster’s tragedy retains its shock value, featuring stabbings, implied rape and a strangling that manages to fill the stage with its execution. All this hatred is sparked by its opposite, love. Newly widowed, the Duchess (Alice de Sousa) marries gentle Antonio (Darren Stamford) a man with neither wealth nor title, but who cleaves to principles in an unprincipled world. Though their union is kept secret, the Duchess’ brothers learn of their sister’s decision and react with murderous madness. Bruce Jamieson is a swaggering, bullying moral vacuum as The Cardinal, and Robin Holden eventually gives way to the madness that was never far away, straitjacketed as Ferdinand.
With nobody more than three rows away from the depravity and the cast in modern dress, there’s an immediacy to the action that tempts one to look away – we know that these are not the sort of men who issue empty threats. What keeps one’s eyes on the stage is the beauty of Webster’s language (‘Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness, that is not kept in chains and close pent rooms, but in fair lightsome lodgings and is girt with the wild noise of prattling visitants which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.’) and the characters who swirl around the dysfunctional family. Emma Grace Arends is feisty, loyal and ultimately utterly tragic as Cariola, the Duchess’ young servant and Damian Quinn judges his role perfectly as Busola, the hand for hire, who learns that his cynicism cannot stand up to the example of those who are truly honourable.
As ever, the Greenwich Playhouse eschews the easy options and gives its clientele something not available in the West End, nor in the subsidised theatre nor, soon, even in Greenwich. I am not alone in wishing Alice and Bruce well in their search for a new home.
The Duchess of Malfi is at Greenwich Playhouse until 18 March 2012.