The Duchess Of Malfi

Published January 16, 2014

There’s such darkness to The Duchess Of Malfi, bathing John Webster’s tragedy in the warm glow of candlelight hardly seems fitting.

The unique lighting system of Shakespeare’s Globe’s new indoor space, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, provides more warmth than either James Garnon’s Cardinal or David Dawson’s Ferdinand, the two brothers to Gemma Arterton’s Duchess, whose revulsion at her choice to secretly remarry following her first husband’s death leads them to enact an horrific revenge.

Yet this Malfi is not a thing of Grand Guignol and extravagant deaths. In the pristine new space – all virgin wood and indulgent paintwork – it is an intimate tale of unbreakable love and unshakable lust for revenge.

In the hands of former Bond girl Arterton, who made her professional debut on the Globe’s outdoor stage, the porcelain-faced Duchess is at first sweet and impish, flushed with true love for Alex Waldmann’s similarly enamoured steward.

As her world descends to imprisonment and torment, so Arterton expertly reveals a quiet, regal strength. Hers is not a wailing, railing Duchess, rather one who would calmly stare down an assassin.

Her brothers, like the candles, provide contrasting light and shade.

David Dawson is a fantastically frenetic Ferdinand, a whirlwind of controlling urges with a hint of incestuous desire. Globe stalwart James Garnon is an eternally stern and unflappable Cardinal, bringing together the prime villainy of Alan Rickman with a touch of Roger Allam and eyebrows that would make Roger Moore jealous. He expertly mines an unexpected seam of dry humour.

In fact, the laughter level is altogether surprising. Director Dominic Dromgoole – it seems only right the venue’s Artistic Director should direct the first production in the new theatre – has brought a lightness, which includes Python-esque dancing madmen, that aids the play’s progress to its distinctly unfunny conclusion.

The new theatre is worth a visit in its own right and already feels like a treasure of historical recreation and design. If you do get a chance, don’t forget to look up; the ceiling is as star-studded as the Globe’s stages.

As for the current production, like Ferdinand’s horrendous reveal moment, it makes a striking impact in this exciting new space.