“Anyone local got a thurible?” came a tweet from the Derngate’s Chief Executive a few weeks ago. I knew I didn’t, so regretfully couldn’t help. But now I know why he wanted one. Because as you enter the Royal auditorium for this production of The Duchess of Malfi, you are confronted by this huge swaying thurible, puffing out its incense against the pitch black, giving that eerie sensation of a hallowed monastic environment, and bringing to mind all those feelings of religious guilt that make you shudder at the prospect of High Church. (Well it does me.)
If that thurible was being wafted around by some officer of the church, on the same scale you’d be absolutely diminutive. And so too, when the set opens up and is dominated by a large golden cross against the background, you feel really small in the stalls. It’s no ordinary cross, this one looks like a segment of an old window frame; on the same scale you’d be about the size of an ant, powerless to oppose the evil that’s about to unfold on stage, much like the Duchess herself.
“Webster was much possessed by death”, as Eliot says, and wasn’t he just. By the time the interval has ended and the audience is brought crashing back to attention by the sound of the prison gate clanking shut, there is no way forward but for mass destruction of almost all the main characters. I’ve never seen this play before and I haven’t read it in almost thirty years, so I wasn’t really prepared for its content. It’s fascinating to see a play that was contemporary of Shakespeare but not written by him – today we’re familiar with the usual Shakespearean play construction and poetic language, but in this play the words are so obviously not Shakespeare’s, that this alone makes for a revealing experience. To my ears, he’s less poetic, and less adept at explaining the character’s motives, but still there are some wonderful passages that you feel would not be out of place in modern drama.
Well what can one say about this production. It’s sheer magic. Laurie Sansom is a creative genius. Don’t let him go to another theatre! In fact I hope they won’t let him out of the building; well maybe, tagged, and allowed to stray no further than Prezzo’s. His artistic insight is amazing, he creates a company that bonds together so well and he has an extraordinary ability to get to the heart of the text and lay its truth bare.
He had the idea to introduce contemporary madrigals to this otherwise music-free play, which at first I thought might not work; but actually this intensifies the emotion and the spookiness. The singers double up as minor courtier roles occasionally taking part in the action, which allows for unnecessary passages to be cut easily to keep the pace up. The music is stunning; the effect inventive.
Charlotte Emmerson is the Duchess, with ardour, horror, compassion, sadness and forgiveness in her eyes. She takes you through the stages of recent widowhood, taking happiness with a new husband in secret, being a loving mother, kind to her lady-in-waiting; then you see her easily out-tricked, but bravely committed to survival; and finally too insignificant to fight the evil. It’s a great performance.
Daniel Fredenburgh as the Cardinal has an excellent steely glare; and there is a marvellously realised scene in the confession box where his hypocrisy is most obvious as he paws at his mistress Julia. There is superb use of the chorus of madrigalers in this scene too. David Caves’ Bosola is no ogre but a calculating chancer, with a warped but understandable morality, and Nick Blood’s Antonio convinced throughout as the scribe who had greatness thrust upon him and who was out of his depth in the trickery and evil of Calabria.
But the real star of this show is Laurie Sansom. The sound effects; the lighting effects; the clever cutting, the deft use of the Royal’s stage, which isn’t big – sometimes people just try to cram too much on there. The man is gold dust.