Arrant Knaves Theatre Company: The Duchess of Malfi – Theatre Review

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Greed, werewolves and poisoned bibles! It’s an Elizabethan romance story with a twist and that can only mean one thing: a poetic and violent tragedy is on the horizon.

In Malfi, Italy in the early 1500s, a funeral march heralds the end of The Duke. His widow The Duchess (Christina Costigan) inherits his land and substantial wealth. Loved by all, The Duchess is noble, independent, brave and virtuous. Everything a leader should be. However, her two brothers could not be more different. Her twin Ferdinand (Justin Harris Parslow) is a vile beast of a man prone to outbursts. Their older brother The Cardinal (Bruce Langdon) is a scheming, lustful and corrupt cardinal of the Catholic Church. The two brothers have one thing in common, a desire to control The Duchess and her wealth themselves. All they need to do is ensure she remains unmarried, even if it means threatening her with death!

The Duchess however cannot be bullied. When in secret, she marries and bares children to her steward Antonio (Christien Dariol), all hell is about to break loose.

The Cardinal then sends a spy into The Duchess‘ employ, the duplicitous Bosola (Tom Bradley). A complicated man, Bosola plays both sides and discovers The Duchess‘ pregnancy. Once the news reaches the ears of The Cardinal and Ferdinand, they plot to take revenge for this perceived treachery, leading to a path of violence and wrath which will destroy everyone involved.

Incredibly, this play is based on the heartbreaking true story of Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, Italy. Her life and disappearance was chronicled by Matteo Bandello and adapted to the stage several times, the most famous of which being The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster around 1612. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Webster‘s work was equally poetic, dark and complex. First performed by The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s company) the timeless subject matter has remained relevant ever since. As long as there have been women, there have been men who for one reason or another seek to control them…

This production of The Duchess of Malfi adapted and directed by Tom Bradley is performed by Arrant Knaves Theatre Company, taking a very dark, very stylish spin on the 400 year old classic. With minimalist sets, a focus on sound design and moody lighting, the story is reimagined here as a gothic horror.

The tone is set from the start as a fog fills the Cobblestone Pavilion at North Melbourne’s Meat Market. The funeral dirge which opens the play and gloomy atmosphere at first seems at odds with the love story between The Duchess and Antonio. But it is entirely fitting in foreshadowing the traumatic events that follow. 

The tempers and egos of selfish men lead to cruelty against their own kin. The Duchess throughout it all remains strong and defiant until the end. Outright madness follows as the play’s characters realise how far they have gone and that it is too late to turn back.

The poetic language of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi may confound some modern audiences at times. Particularly for those unfamiliar with the play as the meanings behind what is being implied may fly over one’s head. The ambient score which plays over some scenes at times exacerbates this issue with some actor’s voices being drowned out as a result.

With that said, the cast do a marvellous job projecting and the performances are top notch. Costigan exudes a regal grace and confidence which makes her portrayal of The Duchess such a joy to witness. Bradley as well in the role of Bosola is a standout. We see his sense of right and wrong tearing him up as Bosola is used as the tool of so much chaos.

But for my part, I found myself enjoying witnessing the villainous brothers and both of their actors were superb. Langdon as the icy and scheming Cardinal was deliciously despicable at bringing about his young sister’s downfall. While Parslow as Ferdinand runs the gambit of emotions, full of rage and pomposity early on before being overtaken by an equally destructive insanity.

Costume design gets a special mention as the outfits throughout the play were numerous and varied. From The Duchess and her twin brother’s regal garb to The Cardinal‘s red vestments. Immediately, we get a sense of who these characters are based on their wardrobe alone. Later as the show takes a darker tone, so do the costumes. With the nightmarish figures of madmen brought in to torment The Duchess in her prison, as well as Ferdinand who dons a wolf head cowl to symbolise his diagnosis of “lycanthropy” as insanity takes hold.

Arrant Knaves Theatre Company’s production of The Duchess of Malfi is a thrilling take on the Jacobian tragedy. Powerful performances from a talented cast give John Webster’s masterpiece the gravitas it deserves. As timely today as it ever was, it makes for a great night of theatre.

The Duchess of Malfi is currently playing at Meat Market (Cobblestone Pavilion) until the 24th of February.
For more information and ticketing, please visit:
www.arrantknaves.com.au

Photography by Daniel Rabin.

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