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.

Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Blood Knot

Orange Tree Theatre, 19th March 2019

To date I have only seen two plays by Athol Fugard. Both bravely examine racial politics in a South Africa divided by apartheid. Both are two-handers examining the relationship between two men, John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island practicing for a performance of Antigone in The Island, and here, in Blood Knot, half-brothers Morris and Zachariah who share a tiny shack in the “Coloured” section of Port Elizabeth. In both plays Mr Fugard is not afraid of taking his time, building out character, situation and message with a wealth of detail. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, on both occasions, I have found myself being drawn in to the intense relationships where one man is “freer” than another in a society utterly disfigured by state-sanctioned racism. Though not enough timely convinced by the dramatic qualities.

Mr Fugard, who is actor and director as well as novelist and playwright, has been working at his craft for over five decades, has packed a lot into his life and has garnered numerous awards in the UK, US as well as his native SA. (He even has a theatre complex in Cape Town named after him which is about to show Kunene and the King after its run at the RSC).

Now I am assuming Blood Knot holds a special place in AF’s heart as he acted alongside his friend and colleague Zakes Mogae at the world premiere in Johannesburg in 1961, multiracial theatre in defiance of the regime. In the same year SA became a Republic and left the British Commonwealth, 69 unarmed black protestors were shot dead by South African police, the Sharpeville Massacre, and Nelson Mandela and the rest of the ANC Executive were found not guilty of treason by the SA High Court. The following year though Mandela was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

Blood Knot, and AF’s other work (with his wife Sheila), his public support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (which led to an international boycott of SA theatre) and the increasing international presence of his work outside SA, led to restrictions on his movement, including confiscation of his passport, and to constant surveillance and harassment. He worked alongside the progressive black theatre company, the Sergeant Players in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in The Island, written with its original leads, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, as well as Sizwe Bansi is Dead, with its more obvious Brechtian and Absurd influences, also from 1972. His other most well known plays, A Lesson From Aloes, (which I stupidly missed when it appeared at the Finborough recently), Master Harold … and the boys, which is about to be revived at the NT, and The Road to Mecca, date from the late 1970s and 1980s, but he hasn’t slowed down continuing to examine the issues which have arisen in SA society since the end of apartheid.

Morris (Nathan McCullen) can pass as white but, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has returned to live with his half-brother Zachariah (Kalungi Ssebandeke, who wrote the very well regarded Assata Taught Me performed at the Gate a couple of years ago). Under Apartheid, people defined as “Coloured” had a different status to those classed as White, Black, East Asian or Cape Malay. This meant that they were not confined to Homelands but their movement and employment was still heavily restricted and their economic prospects constrained. But, as you might expect, such classifications of those with mixed heritage, as well as being reprehensible in principle were difficult to “police” in practice. This is what the play explores.

The fastidious Morris looks after the shack whilst Zac trudges off to work every day. They dream of saving enough from Zac’s earnings to buy a farm, live frugally, with minimal social interaction but share a rich life of imagination. Zac, with Morris’s help since he is literate, strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a woman, but, when they realise she is white, with a policeman brother, they decide that Morris will have to take up her offer of a date in Zac’s place. Zac spends their savings on a fine “white” suit for the meeting, but, when the girl breaks off the correspondence, the clothes become the catalyst for a surreal, and increasingly provocative and complex role-play, or worse, where Morris, as “white” starts to bully Zac, and Zac in turn, harbours a desire to kill Morris. There is no resolution. They are tied together by familial love, but shattered by the system that they live in.

Given the quality of the dialogue, the sure hand of director Matthew Xia, now in charge of the Actors Touring Company and who was behind the revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Young Vic in 2014, and a very effective set from Basia Binkowska, (who also impressed in the Lyric Hammersmith OthelloMacbeth), I suspect I was always going to be partial to the idea of this. However the careful performances of both actors, with a palpable chemistry between them, definitely helped. I can’t pretend that the claustrophobic, dense structure and rhythm of the play, especially as it moves into the ambiguous final third, didn’t occasionally frustrate and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the distracting electronic sound design of Xana. After two powerful, if sometimes ponderous, performances of AF’s plays I think the next bite of the cherry needs to have a little more dramatic variety and a bigger cast. I gather Master Harold … has one extra character. Phew.