As we entered the darkened Drama Barn, host to the University of York Drama Society’s weekly performances, the fairy lights in jars on either side of the stage could have been candles at a first glance, echoing a tradition of 17th century indoor candlelit theatre at Blackfriars that was ‘revived’ just last year with the opening of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London – its first production also being The Duchess of Malfi.
Bryony Cleary’s student production of The Duchess of Malfi is certainly aiming for traditional staging and playhouse authenticity. The stage is minimal, with chairs and tables occasionally being brought on, and dusty curtains covering three stage entrances, rather similar to the stage layout we believe was originally used at the Globe when this Jacobean play was first performed. Characters wear traditional Renaissance-style clothing, and a small live band perform at various points throughout the play – again, a nod towards the original staging of this tragedy.
The dim lighting, Glynis Hughs’ off-colour costuming and the somewhat uncomfortably small theatre all lend themselves to John Webster’s macabre play. A sense of unease and claustrophobia can be incredibly effective in a play such as this, and at times Cleary’s direction and the actors on stage produced just this. Bosolo (Angus Bower-Brown) often acts as a medium between the audience and the spectrum of good and evil we witness on stage, his frustration and open anger makes Bower-Brown’s Bosolo as much a victim of the corruption within the play as its more innocent characters. The obsessive, hot-headed Ferdinand and the cold, sardonic Cardinal (Jared More and Thomas Barry) were a fantastic villainous duo. More gave us a leering, primal Ferdinand whose mind seems to be unraveling from the start, and Barry’s sinister portrayal of the calm, eerily cool Cardinal was a highlight, especially as even this character begins to break as he contemplates hell.
Hannah Forsyth is an endearing and poised duchess and in a role which can be difficult to stand out among the array of charismatic and wonderfully evil villains. Her performance is as bright and captivating as her co-stars, and her stoic final scenes are especially memorable. Amelia Hamilton’s Julia was also a refreshing and fun contrast to the virtuous duchess, and perhaps the best on stage at creating actual sexual tension with the other actors.
This tension is one of the few aspects of the acting which fell short. Though many of the cast needed the first couple acts to fully settle into their roles on this opening night, all gave fantastic individual performances yet the on-stage chemistry was often lacking. We get anger, madness and vengeance, but what should be driving The Duchess of Malfi is an unhealthy dose of unbridled desire. We need all-consuming passion between the duchess and Antonio as well as an unsettling level of discomfort and even unbearable tension as we watch Ferdinand lust for his sister, otherwise the bloodshed begins to feel out of place.
The live music also had varying effect, some great such as the bell and drums in the strangulation scene, as well as the vocals as the Cardinal changed his robes for a soldier’s garb, but there were other moments when the music either brought nothing or even distracted from the atmosphere of the play. Yet these were minor instances, and overall the live music was an effective addition.
Cleary and Dramasoc’s production does not do much other than a straight, traditional performance of Webster’s play, though with such a strong set of lead actors and in a theatre world saturated with ‘modernisations’ of Renaissance drama a reinterpretation of the play is not necessary. Visually effective, smooth and direct, this performance is not to be missed. The Duchess of Malfi is at the Drama Barn at the University of York until November 29th – you can purchase tickets here.