The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida Theatre ****

The Duchess of Malfi

Almeida Theatre, 2nd Jan 2020

No question Almeida Associate Director Rebecca Frecknall is talented. Her Summer and Smoke, the dreamy Three Sisters here last year and now this. And for those, like the Tourist, who get a little antsy about her intemperate use of de jour theatrical tropes, then, I gather, she played it entirely naturalistically for Chris Bush’s Steel in the Crucible Studio recently .(LD, despite now having gone all Sheff native still hasn’t been – you try your best, eh, and what thanks do you get).

The glass box set courtesy of Chloe Lamford, a regular in Continental European art theatres, as well as display cabinets stage left and right, memento mori, housing anachronistic props. And yes this being a tragedy the walls get smeared with blood, though this is black not red, so pervasive is the corruption. Simple, well tailored, monochrome modern dress, with a woeful disregard for footwear, from Nicky Gillibrand. Stark lighting designed by Jack Knowles. Pulsing soundscape from George Dennis. Title projection to bookmark each act of John Webster’s tragedy. Microphones. Slow motion when it gets hyper-dramatic. Which it does. At the end. Soundtracked with the passus duriusculus ground bass of Dido’s Lament,

All present and correct. Yet all serves as an ideal foil to the excellent central performances, most notably of Lydia Wilson as The Duchess and Leo Bill as the conflicted betrayer Bosola. The Duchess of Malfi can be, and is now usually, as here, read, as a proto-feminist tract, as our heroine, despite her wealth is destroyed by her brothers, Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) and The Cardinal (Michael Marcus) who object to her marriage to, and children with, “lowly” steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla). In outline the plot reads like textbook macabre revenge tragedy: in practice there is plenty of room for ambiguity and exploration within Webster’s poetry. John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore, written a decade or so later, is a similarly impartial, elaborate dive into human nature, when done well, as it was in Cheek By Jowl’s adaptation which first introduced the Tourist to the talent of Ms Wilson who played the incestuous Arabella. Obviously she is a big deal on the telly and it is easy to see why.

We (the SO got the gig) were lucky enough to be close enough to see her full range of expression, verbal and non-verbal, in a role full of “say one thing, mean another” moments. Antonio doesn’t stand a chance in the seduction scene, her quest for normality despite her position, as reasonable as it is unattainable, and the showdowns with the brothers are electric. Leo Bill’s duality is revealed more explicitly through monologue as he wrestles with his conscience after taking the cash to spy on the Duchess and her secret hubby. Jack Riddiford also pulls off the difficult act of being full on nutter, with a barely concealed sister love, that we still feel sorry for. Like a Roman Roy gone very bad, without the wisecracks. Especially when, contrary to Webster’s text, his dead sister comes back to haunt in the final act.

It is tricky for the rest of the cast to match these three characters and performances, though Khalid Abdalla’s diffident Antonio, Michael Marcus’s bullying Cardinal, Ioanna Kimbook’s confidant and maid Cariola and Shalini Peiris’s vulgar Julia, (both brutally murdered and both spectrally joining the Duchess), all support the increasingly tense psycho-drama. The staging and direction maybe suffers through lack of context, religion and its hypocrisy are key drivers in Webster’s play, and there are times when a bit more pace might have been injected, but overall this is another hit for both Almeida and Ms Frecknall. Proving that, with a bit of nip, tuck, and redirection, a Jacobean gore-fest can have as much to say about patriarchal control of female sexuality as the latest monologue at the Vaults. It is the Duchess’s daughter, not son, who here inherits. Though what legacy we ask.

The Almeida remains London’s most accomplished theatre and I have high hopes for Beth Steel’s new play The House of Shades. It spans five years over the last six decades so maybe this time we might be treated to a dose of naturalism. We’ll see.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle at the Barbican Theatre review ****

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Barbican Theatre, 8th June 2019

The Tourist has fallen embarrassingly behind on his documentation of a cultural life. Ironically because he has been on holiday. Unfortunately for you though this is not (yet) one of those countless dormant blogs, casualties of time and application. So back to early June, the Barbican and the inestimable Cheek by Jowl. But this time the Russian ensemble under the direction and design of Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod. The last time they visited was 2015 with Measure for Measure, though I venture I recognised a couple of cast members from the rep season earlier this year of the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre (on this stage, of course) who make up the CbJ company.

Now The Knight of the Burning Pestle makes a fair claim to being the first work of meta-theatre in the English language. Written by Frances Beaumont in 1607, and first published in 1613, it is a satire on the chivalric romances of earlier centuries, in a similar vein to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which specifically parodies the work of contemporaries Thomas Heywood, The Four Prentices of London, and Thomas Dekker, The Shoeman’s Holiday. CbJ stick fairly closely in this adaptation to the original plot, though of course, delivered here in Russian with English sur-titles. Which heritage provides inspiration for a further twist. Since before the grocer George and his wife Nell emerge from the audience to berate performers and director on stage, and subsequently promote the acting “talents” of their inept nephew, we are treated to some hard core minimalist European auteur theatre (of the type that CbJ itself excels at). Monochrome, mannered and mystifying, beginning with actors shuffling up chairs in hands, even a few minutes of this leaves the audience feeling like it is going to be in for a long, “high concept”, night.

So that the laughs which come when Alexander Feklistov and Agrippina Steklova, our “low” culture delegates, pipe up, are as much from relief as from the character’s gaucheness in breaking theatrical convention. They want to be entertained (we later find out they couldn’t get tickets for The Lion King!) and demands changes. Our bemused director Tim (Kirill Sbitnev), the spit of Brecht, eventually persuades then to sit stage left and we return to the staging of “The London Merchant” but it is not long before the couple call young Rafe (Nazar Safonov) to the stage and insist he be allowed to act out his own “knight (grocer) errant” role complete wit burning pestle heraldic device, apparently a medieval knob gag.

The actual play concerns the attempted elopement of Jasper Merrythought (Kirill Chernyshenko) and Luce (Anna Vardevanian), who is betrothed to toff Humphrey (Abdrei Kuzichev). The lovebirds dream up a fake elopement scam, Jasper’s long suffering Mum (Anna Karmakova) decides to leave his feckless Dad (Alexei Rakhmanov) taking younger brother Michael (Danila Kazakov), there is some jewellery, a coffin, fights, testing of devotion, but all ends happily. At the same time the hapless knight Rafe gets in on the action, swanning off to Moldavia, rejecting a princess, before, egged on by his employers, giving us his ostentatious death scene.

Amongst all this meta upon meta upon meta conflation, (the set is a rotating cube, each scene is announced by Brecht-like projections, there is live video, obvs, there is a psychedelic-dance-dream routine to thumping techno), the daft story is actually quite entertaining, the crack Russian cast, especially Mr Feklistov and Ms Steklova, actually manage to project real character, and there are a fair few laughs, even if of some of the theatrical in-jokes went over my head. And the serious point about what theatre is for and who “owns” it, audience, writer or performers, is deftly made. Of course the Tourist would expect nothing less from Messrs Donellan and Ormerod. And even if the main, conceptual, joke wears a little thin after a while the whole thing is wrapped up in 90 minutes and thus easily forgiven. Apparently in versions that stick to the original text this can top 3 hours.

Francis Beaumont started out as a lawyer before studying with Ben Jonson no less, and went on to write in partnership with John Fletcher who collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost Cardenio. On the strength of this it would be interesting to see a new take on the Beaumont/Fletcher collaborations which generally went down well with Jacobean audiences, in contrast to TKOTBP which bombed apparently as the punters failed to appreciate the irony and satire. Which, if you think about it, probably gave Beaumont a great deal of pleasure given that his play is about the failure of an audience to appreciate the play presented to it. I also wonder what they would make of current popular culture, dripping as it is, with self-reverential, meta-, post-modernism.