The Duchess of Malfi

I’ve taken a little break from Shakespeare for the last couple of weeks for various reasons. The main reason, though, was the production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi that was televised on the BBC about ten days ago.

My previous experience of Webster’s tragedy is limited. My sister used a quotation on an art project, and Agatha Christie referred to it in Sleeping Murder. I haven’t yet finished reading the play – it feels denser than Shakespeare and I keep being distracted. But, obviously, I have seen it.

The Duchess of Malfi tells of a rich young widow and her secret marriage to her steward – her brothers, one a Cardinal and the other her twin Ferdinand, do not want her to remarry. Probably a money-thing and them wanting it. It is said to be based on the story of an Italian Duchess from about a century before Webster’s play was published in 1623. The play is about the brothers’ reaction when they discover the Duchess’ marriage.

The Globe’s production, which starred Gemma Arterton as the Duchess, was staged in a reproduction Jacobean indoor theatre, lit only by candles. I have no doubt that eventually the filming of this will make its way onto DVD. If you get the chance, buy it and help them recoup the cost of the beeswax candles.

Even though this is a tragedy – and it is tragic – there were moments which I found amusing. I don’t know if they were meant to be, but they were. Not big things. A look. The Cardinal especially had some wonderful expressions.

I tend to think of theatre work as the hardest kind of acting. Recreating the same emotion night after night, and remembering all those lines, can’t be easy. I was very impressed by the level of the emotions between the actors, and by Ferdinand’s descent into insanity.

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