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.

Love and Information at Sheffield Theatres review *****

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Love and Information

Sheffield Crucible Theatre Studio, 7th July 2018

So here was my cunning plan. LD wanted/needed to have a sniff around the University. I spied this revival on the very evening. A chance to have a good look at this fine city. And, though not the original intention, time to watch the England game, (thanks Novotel), whilst LD and the SO had the shops to themselves before they set off back to London.

Love and Information is by Caryl Churchill, the greatest living writer in the English language. She would be the greatest ever if it wasn’t for some long dead geezer from Stratford (upon-Avon not Ontario).

Love and Information was first performed at the Royal Court, (where CC’s plays are normally first presented), in 2012, but despite its relative youth, it has already seen numerous revivals around the world. No surprise there. Like everything she writes it is a work of staggering genius, in terms of dramatic impact, formal invention and intellectual insight. OK so sometimes I have no idea why she chose to show specific scenes and exchanges or what they might “mean”, but that’s all part of the “fun”. It just makes your brain fizz – “my head’s too full of stuff” as one of the characters says early on – indeed. It is exhilarating, if very occasionally frustrating, stuff.

There are seven sections in total whose order is specified by CC. Within these sections however the 57 individual scenes/episodes can be performed in any order. Moreover a random selection of some of these episodes at the end of the text can be inserted wherever the director chooses. There are over 100 characters in all but CC offers no detail as to age/gender/race. And as is typical for CC there are no stage directions or instructions leaving it to director, cast and creatives to decide how they are going to stage the scenes/episodes. So the way in which the relationship between text, performer and audience is constructed and mediated is about as loose as it is possible to get whilst still avoiding the trap of pretentious twaddle.

There are two clear themes: er, Love and Information. Each episode has some moreorless explicit connection with, and/or insight into, these themes, though there is plenty more to chew on besides that, (memory, ageing and ecological crisis pop up for example which also inform most of CC’s recent work) . The effect is of a kaleidoscope of interactions and relationships alongside an essay on the proliferation of “knowledge, both pointless and valuable. We are bombarded with information? How does that affect the way we interact? The structure of the play reflects the very questions it seeks to confront. A philosophical variety show if you will.

Despite the absence of context, identities, names, narrative or indeed any “normal” dramatic anchors CC still manages, often in the space of just a few lines or a couple of minutes to sketch character, to serve up humour, longing, sadness, regret, anger, jealousy, joy, in fact the whole gamut of human emotions. Like so much of CC’s work it is an exercise in distilling drama down to its very essence in order to create lasting impressions and arresting ideas. And all because CC knows how to use words.

The original production used 16 actors. Here Sheffield Theatres associate director Caroline Steinbeis cut this down to just 6. Which means she and her colleagues did a lot of thinking about how to put the scenes together. It also means that some of the scenes were very effectively stitched together, most notably the “children’s TV show” near the end, to create a longer arc of meaning. Max Jones’s set, a bare stage backed by six coloured light boxes, also permitted rapid cutting between the episodes. Costumes, movement (Jenny Ogilvie), lighting (Johanna Town) and sound (the Ringmam brothers yet again) were also carefully considered to create far more concrete settings where abstraction might have been more tempting (and easier). I see that some critics found this more precise and considered technical achievement, (compared to the premiere apparently),¬†somewhat distracting. I loved it, though having not seen a previous production, I knew no better.

I would imagine the cast had a ball putting this together. It is hard to imagine a more challenging, though ultimately satisfying, acting job. So thank you very much Debbie Chazen, Marian McLoughlin, Mercy Ojelade, Ciaran Owens, Ian Redford and Sule Rimi.

And thank you Sheffield Theatres. And Sheffield. But most of all thank you Caryl Churchill.