In Haunt

Complications of love, legacy and honour hammer through the dark heart of The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster’s twisted Jacobean revenge drama (estimated as written 1612-1613). To see it come alive in a Manchester School of Theatre production at HOME – directed by David Salter - brought the blood brilliantly to the surface, in more ways than one; wielding crucial emotional energy as well as the play’s potent gore.

By Shay Rowan

This was a performance from students in their third year at Manchester School of Theatre (Manchester Metropolitan University), the final of the Autumn Season, with an impressive sold-out run at HOME from 21-23 November. Webster’s play certainly is an ambitious and interesting choice: an extensive script and supercharged character dynamics combined with physically-demanding action… the audience taken into rolling tide of revenge that shows no sign of stopping. For readers who do not want the plot of the play partially revealed, perhaps look away now. 

For The Duchess of Malfi is after all a drama of frustrated desires and capacity for corruption, pushed to the limits. There is the Duchess herself, recently widowed, then marrying below her status to the honest Antonio. This wedding of love and feeling is of course kept a secret from the Duchess’ brothers – one a Cardinal, cold and melancholy in disposition, the other – her controlling twin, Ferdinand. Both have told her not to marry again.

 An unnerving chemistry between the Duchess (Hannah Brownlie) and a surly Ferdinand (Matt Pettifor - both pictured in first image) is presented emphatically on-stage almost from the onset; bold body language from the brother bringing a kind of foreboding, a forcefulness, an almost incestuous charge. He recruits the savvy Bosola to his service – the brothers sending this man to spy on their sister, of whom they are suspicious. This is a particularly bold and notable performance of Bosola from Paddy Stafford (pictured below): gutsy with a real glint in his eye, sharp measured movements cleverly conveying a character who becomes an instrument of other people’s power – going on to be the agent of multiple deaths.

By Shay Rowan

This mention of body language leads on to a notable larger point about this Manchester School of Theatre production; gripping both in its physicality and force of individual character. From sexually-charged clinches to fight-scenes fizzing with tension - the production is punctuated with gripping movement, directed and executed with skill. Credit must indeed be given to Fight Director Renny Krupinski. In addition, the tight cast ooze a chemistry – surely testament to a well-worked relationship both through practice with each other and with the script itself.

Cast connectivity does not distract from individual identities however; we see an admirably determined (and entertainingly dramatic) Duchess, a needy, narcissistic twin– and an utterly slimy cardinal, thanks to the understated skill of actor Andrew Dawson (featured in the below image). Director David Salter has evidently encouraged individual aspects to shine, with attention to detail and an emotive engagement that hooks the audience throughout the duration. Antonio is played with a notable warmth by Bailey Brook, whilst the Duchess’ waiting-woman Cariola (Heather Horsman) is also distinctly likeable: expressive in manner, inviting empathy.

By Shay Rowan

 Whilst some productions of The Duchess of Malfi go straight for the jugular, laying bare the base motives many see as underpinning the play: blood lust and bitterness - this Manchester School of Theatre version is remarkably skilled in its simmering conveyance of how cruelty can undercut these personal dynamics, dripping in all its weird ways. The brothers’ demand the death of their sister – as informed by a scheming Bosola, her waiting-woman is next, and later the deaths of the cardinal’s mistress, Antonio and even the brothers themselves is powerfully done rather than a sensationalised spill. 

In turn, the lengthy running time of the show (3 hours) did not feel testing at all, the viewer made to feel not just a spectator to the action, but invested in the characters… their development, as well as their demise. I wanted to find out what would happen to the Duchess, how long Bosola would go along serving the desires of the powerful before he cracked. This skilled characterisation in turn allowed a greater range of themes to rise to the surface, particularly pertinent to the modern day: how ‘status’ can become a cloak for corruption, as well as the theme of women upholding their own desires and sexualities. I would have liked to have seen this sexual charge – particularly interesting given the time the play is set – explored perhaps even more; how female sexual energy rages against the political power structures underpinning misogyny. Then again, this was a production already ambitious in its scope and unpacking of character.

By Shay Rowan

The viewer is hooked not just on the character dynamics however, but the overarching intelligent use of sound and visuals. Girding guitar intros give scene transitions a gutsy punch and aids with pacing, whilst considered prop use combines with clusters of action in ways that feel impactful, yet not over-done. This ranges from a rollicking and wild entry of Ferdinand and friends early the play – wonderfully amusing – to the awfully twisted depiction of the Duchess’ husband and child dead in a cage: the same haunting cage on wheels used to depict a communal descent into madness. Indeed, the interlinked use of props adds a slickness, allowing the play to push towards its bloody, brutal climax. There’s a gripping encounter too as Ferdinand thrashes and fumbles on stage – his unfolding affliction with Lycanthropy: the belief that he is becoming a wolf – dealt with by a brilliantly deadpan doctor (played by Caitlin Kaur).

The Duchess of Malfi is known by many after all for its particularly violent, death-laden descent towards the end – but this was a production with an emotional punch too, rather than releasing into a full-on bloodbath. Yes, there are multiple deaths on stage – but it was seeing the range of feelings etched into faces of the actors, each character undergoing their own strains and seething internal tortures, that made this a tear-jerking performance. A turbulent tragedy but also an emotional journey, admirable in its cast and direction; drawing out human emotion in the face of cold, hard corruption.

Photography: with thanks to Shay Rowan

By Emily Oldfield 

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