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The Duchess of Malfi review at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London – ‘energetic and engaging’

The Duchess of Malfi at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London. Photo: Jim Creighton The Duchess of Malfi at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London. Photo: Jim Creighton
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With the heady smell of incense, challenging acoustics and sombre choral music, the church makes a rather excellent venue for Scena Mundi’s production of The Duchess of Malfi. Webster’s play does much to expose the decadence of the Roman Catholic church and director Cecilia Dorland uses the space well, from venom being spat from the pulpit by the discontented Bosola to a cardinal seducing women in front of the altar. What is genuinely striking about Dorland’s production, however, is the pace, with scenes blending in and out seamlessly and yet totally sure-footed.

There are some big performances here, but where Jacobean horror is concerned, it’s all about balance. Jack Christie’s Bosola may be a snarling malcontent swathed in black fur and bitterness, but it’s nicely countered by Rupert Bate’s reticent, softly spoken Delio. The real monsters here, namely Ferdinand and the Cardinal, are painted in vivid tones by Webster and Pip Brignall and Martin Prest both rise to the challenge. Brignall is particularly unsettling as Ferdinand, underscoring his vitriol toward the Duchess with more than a hint of either jealousy or perhaps even incest.

Jess Murphy’s Duchess is no fragile victim, however, but a fighter whose only crime is to have fallen in love. Her untimely dispatch is strikingly staged but it’s the strength of her farewell that sticks in the mind. Dorland’s production is simply but effectively staged, complemented by an eloquent lighting design from Chris Perry and delivered with refreshing clarity.

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Energetic and engaging production of a macabre Jacobean classic