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 Hunt at the Almeida Theatre review *****

The Hunt

Almeida Theatre, 1st August 2019

I am not sure where I stand on the films of director, controversialist and misogynist Lars van Trier. I guess if you venture into dark territory you are going to make the audience that follows you uneasy. Which is how I feel about the likes of Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. Brilliant film-making if not always brilliant films. 

Fellow Dogme 95 founder Thomas Vinterberg is a much more palatable director however. More interested in social rather than individual psychology, more polis than eros, and less prone to stylistic innovation. Festen (The Celebration) is a work of unsettling, tonally ambiguous, tragi-comic genius, Submarino somehow extracts redemption from the unremitting pain of the brothers’ lives at its centre, Far From the Madding Crowd is better than the original, (Schlesinger’s and, I regret to say SO, Hardy’s), I’ve just seen the intriguing The Commune and I have Kursk on the watch list. But his best film for me is The Hunt, though it is helped by an outstanding central performance by the coolest actor on earth Mads Mikkelsen. 

All of his “original” films seem to be to be intrinsically dramatic, focussed on character, plot and idea, rather than spectacle, and not expansive in terms of time or place. Which makes them eminently suitable for theatrical treatment. It is a matter of some regret that the original Almeida production of Festen in 2004, which cemented the reputations of both Rufus Norris, now NT head, and playwright David Eldridge, who adapted the script of Vinterberg and his regular co-writer Tobias Lindholm, coincided with a theatrical “dry” period for the Tourist. Hopefully one day it will return.

This time it is Almeida AD Rupert Goold directing, following on from his string of hits , Shipwreck, Albion, Ink, Medea, King Charles III and American Psycho. We should never forget that it all starts with the writer, and that in this regard the Almeida has been lucky. More over the theatre is, I assume, now flush with enough cash and kudos to pull in any actor and creative team that is desires. Even so, and maybe forgiving a few recent misfires, the last few years have been a purple patch for the house even by comparison to its very high historical standards. Simple rule. Just buy a ticket for everything they put on. Even now that Robert Icke is on his way since Rebecca Frecknall looks to be a very capable replacement as Associate Director. (Next up her version of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Any playwright good enough to inspire a Bunnymen song gets my vote).

A story of a man or woman wrongly accused and shunned by a small community is obvious theatrical catnip. Reference the film where teacher Lucas returns to his Danish hometown and a job in a primary school after redundancy and the break-up of his marriage in the city. After a misunderstanding in the school with Clara, the daughter of Lucas’s best friend Theo, that we, but not the community, see, Lucas is accused of paedophilia. The set-up, the investigation that follows and the violent fall-out is all painfully realistic. The story though ends with neither forgiveness or banishment as you might expect. There is plenty of symbolism along the way as Lucas’s relationships with colleagues, friends, son Marcus, church members and hunting pals is dissected. A thriller with a moral message, rich in ambiguity, taking a potshot at Danish society’s complacent view of its own tolerance. Like I say. Theatrical catnip.

But it still needed adapting. Enter David Farr. I don’t know any of Mr Farr’s original writing or adaptations in the theatre but I, and probably you, will know his work for television, particularly his adaptations of John Le Carrie’s The Night Manager and, less successfully maybe, Misha Glenny’s McMafia. For The Hunt he has stuck pretty closely I think to the plot and chronology of the film, though he has made Lucas more solitary by removing girlfriend Nadja and friend Bruun, altered his relationship with Marcus and cleverly updated the schoolroom set-up. The deer hunts, and the ritualistic machismo that pervades them, have also been highlighted and provide some intense theatre assisted by the costumes of Evie Gurney, lighting of Neil Austin, sound of Adam Cork and movement of Botis Seva. Lucas is, graphically, turned into the prey.

I have said before that Rupert Gould strikes me as a generous director who brings out the best in the creatives around him and The Hunt is no exception. This is a gripping story but could have been delivered in a predictable enter/dialogue/exit, scene after scene fashion, as literal as its source. Instead, as in the string of his other plays mentioned above, the play is replete with movement, symbolism and visual diversion. The tone is set by, er, Es Devlin’s set. Yes it is another of her trademark glass boxes, set on a blond wood circular stage, but, whether as school, house, church, hunt meeting hall or, brace yourself, deer enclosure, switching from transparent to opaque, from place of safety to place or threat, it still works to brilliant effect.

Tobias Menzies is set to play Phil the Greek in Series 3 and 4 of The Crown but he has already decorated TV and film with distinction, though looking at his bio I haven’t seen nearly enough of him. On stage he was excellent as Mikhail/Michael in Robert Icke’s underrated Uncle Vanya at, yep you guessed it, the Almeida, but other than that, again, I haven’t seen him perform. Here though he was perfectly cast. Lucas is innocent, of the crime of which he is accused for sure, but also in a broader sense. This story is not an attempt to create false parity or deny the victim. It is about the hypocrisy and anger that can infect a small community when threatened. Lucas is neither good nor bad, simply the catalyst for the reaction, though we can sympathise with his plight. This doesn’t mean that the play dodges the uncomfortable truths it confronts, just that it doesn’t go in, as is the Dogme 95 way, for an overt moral stance.

For this to work requires Tobias Menzies to present Lucas as self contained, curiously restrained, almost withdrawn, in the face of what happens. This he does. To devastating effect. Justin Salinger as the feckless Theo and Poppy Miller as his unhappy wife Mikala, the three of them have baggage, are equally convincing, torn between believing their daughter or their friend. Around this trinity, Michele Austin as head teacher Hilde, Stuart Campbell as the gawky, raging Marcus, Danny Kirrane as the hyper-aggressive Gunnar and Howard Ward as the investigator Per also stood out. And Abbiegail Mills as young Clara should definitely stick with this acting lark (though not to the exclusion of her other studies of course).

Adaptations of films for the stage don’t always work. Witness many of Ivo van Hove’s creations. Though Network was a recent triumphant exception. This was in large part though thanks to the unsung adaptation of Lee Hall. In the same way we must thank David Farr for his smart contribution here. As good as the film? Maybe not quite. But still something remarkable to set alongside it.