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.

Other People’s Money at Southwark Playhouse review ***

Other People’s Money

Southwark Playhouse, 23rd April 2019

The Tourist is a generous man. As a cursory glance at his “recommendations” on this blog will reveal. He accentuates the positive. And so it will prove here. Jerry Sterner’s play Other People’s Money was a big hit, when it first appeared, off Broadway in 1989. So big that it spawned a film, directed by Norman Jewison, and starring Danny DeVito. Mr Sterner never really matched this play, though I see that he had sufficient wit to have his headstone inscribed “finally, a plot”.

Whilst I can certainly imagine Mr DeVito, with his trademark New Jersey wisecrackery, relishing the lines delivered by Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfinkle (Garfield in the film, recognising the lazy stereotype), I can also concur, based on this production from Blue Touch Paper, that the film, like the play, falls a little short of the coruscating satire on 1980s US capitalist excesses that it purports to be. For that look no further than Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The evil asset stripper Larry is more concerned with his one-liners than making a case for unfettered, free market Darwinism and his opponent, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgenson, is just way too homespun to persuade as the benevolent CEO of family business New England Wire and Cable. And Kate Sullivan, daughter of Bea, Jorgy’s second wife and loyal assistant, is pretty unconvincing as the lawyer (not banker) called in to mount a defence against Larry’s hostile predation, (on the company as well as her virtue). The play makes some good points about the uneasy relationship between the shareholders that provide the capital to the industrialist who put it to work and gets a few details of process right. But it also, trust me, gets a fair few wrong and gets bogged down in cliche and homily. The ending, as with much of the comedy “chemistry” between Kate and Larry, is troubling.

Yet it does have a fair few good lines, some dynamism, if predictability, in it sub-plots and, in the hands of director Katherine Farmer, clips along at a fair pace. The traverse stage setting of Emily Leonard, means quick transitions from Jorgy’s office, battered desk and chairs, in the wire factory to Larry’s Manhattan lair, black and steel gleaming furniture and cubist artwork, and she has sourced some full on 80’s power dressing costumes. This though, like the main plot, locks the action down in its period which blunts any attempt at relevance.

For my money, (no pun intended), Beth Steel’s Labyrinth, which went back to the late 1970s and LatAm debt crisis had much more to say about the risks, and rewards, that the last four decades of financial capitalism have brought to the world and Sarah Burgess’s Dry Powder was a far more accurate, and detailed, blackly comic take on the individuality amorality that can ensue. And, as drama, probably because the real life tale is just so outrageous, Lucy Prebble’s Enron is far stronger. Oh, and of course, the genius Caryl Churchill nailed the genre in 1987 with Serious Money.

Mark Rose as Jorgy’s duplicitous COO William Coles, offered the most convincing performance, and kept the plot on track with his expositional narration. The rest, a shouty Michael Brandon as Jorgy, US born Amy Burke as “sassy” Kate, Lin Blakley, an Eastenders regular I gather, as the apple-pie Bea, and an uncomfortable looking Rob Locke as Larry, also over-egged it for me. The relationships between the characters were therefore as thinly drawn as the characters themselves.

So as an occasionally sparky period piece with the odd flash of insight it works. As an examination of the confrontation between these perspectives and the archetypes that populate them, with any contemporary relevance, or as family/individual drama, it falls a fair way short.