Soon before William Shakespeare’s death, a new star rose in English theater. This star was a bit more gruesome with a focus on the passion of his audience for blood, over-drama and violence. His name was John Webster.
Rebecca Frecknall brings back on the stage of Almeida Theatre one of his most important plays, “The Duchess of Malfi”, which tells the story of a young Duchess, hit by the untimely death of her husband, who develops a deep affection for her steward Antonio. This affection becomes love and then marriage, leaving her two brothers (the powerful Cardinal and the psychotic Ferdinand) angered by the loss of the inheritance they were expecting to gain. A series of dramatic events will gradually happen on stage.
Inspired by a true event happened in late 14th century, the tragedy of Webster is set in a contemporary world, reminiscent of more recent tragedies but Fracknell creates an eerie atmospheres, presenting her characters as almost floating in an aquarium at the beginning and resorting to effective slow motion sequences for the most dramatic moments (the final reckoning ends up like a choreographed Caravaggio painting and it is really poignant).
Lydia Wilson is perfect as the stoic Duchess, gentle at first but then dramatically overwhelmed by the gratuitous violence and hate of her brothers. If Michael Marcus shows all the sheer contempt of his despicable Cardinal, Jack Riddiford as Ferdinand is a marvel to watch, a body shaking in madness and violence, convinced to be a wolf-man, devastated by the insane passion he feels for his twin sister.
The theatre of John Webster may be much more humoral and extreme than Shakespeare’s but it stills has his own strength and meaning.
“The Duchess of Malfi” is at the Almeida Theatre until the 25th of January.