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.

Shipwreck at the Almeida Theatre review *****

Shipwreck

Almeida Theatre, 18th March 2019

The Tourist, as this blog shows, is a nice bloke given to giving creatives the benefit of the doubt. Hence the string of positive reviews on these pages. He likes to think that he is wise in his choice of entertainment. The reality is that he just wants to be liked, even when it manifestly doesn’t matter.

Even so he admits to toddling off to the Almeida to see Shipwreck with some trepidation. Reviews were mixed but rarely overwhelming. The SO, BD and LD had all bailed out in advance, for good reasons, though Dad’s sales pitch was about as convincing as that of The Apprentice candidate, (a clever Trump reference there people), who is fired in week one. The Tourist and BD had abandoned Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns one act in, though this was in part due to “cold-induced fatigue”/teenage hangover, and the SO had to abandon The Twilight Zone, now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, due to a domestic crisis. A poor familial showing all round. Would lightning strike thrice then?

Certainly not. I bloody loved this. As usual that is of no use to you if you fancy seeing it since it is now all over but it really shows why Rupert Gould and the Almeida have such faith in Ms Washburn’s abilities. There may be some dramatic shortfalls, largely born of excess ambition, but boy can she turn a phrase. Now I don’t know when, or if, this will make its way to the other side of the pond but if it does, assuming you are a member of the very echo chamber it purports to excavate, then you should definitely see it. (I think I can safely assume that the Trumpian side of the cultural divide will have no interest in watching their “opposition” introspect, though they would get apoplectically wound up).

Shipwreck is a meticulous unpicking of liberal America’s current paralysis in the face of angry populism. It may be very time and place specific but its messages are universal. Populist politics, which can and will turn ugly, cannot be dismissed, mocked, pandered to or ignored. It has to be confronted and unpicked, piece by piece, through argument, mobilisation and democratic will. Hand wringing and virtue signalling won’t cut it.

By bringing together seven privileged, articulate, white bar-one, liberal American progressives in a snowbound, holiday farmhouse in upstate New York, and then letting then slug out the arguments one by one, with a useful, if not unsurprising twist, AW is able to rehearse all the arguments in forensic detail. The dialogue is actually centred on June 2017 after the ex head of the FBI, James Comey, offered up his damning testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey, you will recall, or maybe you won’t for that is one of the points the play forcibly makes, was the bloke who was fired by Trump, ostensibly on the recommendation of the attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein because the FBI rank and file had allegedly lost confidence in their director, but, in reality, because Trump feared the net closing in the the strands of collusion with Russia in the election, taken up subsequently in the Mueller enquiry. Comey, you may also remember, was the chap who rashly indicated that he was re-opening an investigation into the so-called Hilary Clinton e-mails just before the election having previously said there was no case to answer. Confused? I am and that is the point. Keeping up with the truth is tough enough. Unpicking truth, lies and fantasy when narrative and ideology conflict and when there are multiple “reporting” platforms makes it near impossible even for those with the time, inclination and critical faculty to care.

One of the pivotal moments in the debate between the Shipwreck crew comes when, I think, Adam James’s lawyer Andrew reminds then of the time when Trump, in a Republican primary event, claimed the GOP bigwigs had pleaded with him to cool his opposition to the Iraq War. He had not publicly declared any such opposition. He just made it up. And kept repeating it. Then this kind of breathtaking audacity was a surprise. Now many have have become inured to it, just accept it or positively embrace it. Truth has always been a slippery fellow, manipulated by teller and beholder, and more so as time passes, but deliberate, outright fabrication is plainly dangerous to the body politic. But pitifully easy it seems.

The other key moment comes when Andrew’s partner, banker Yusuf, (Khalid Abdalla), admits he voted for the comb-over bogeyman in the election. With the age old excuse of “wanting to shake things up”. Justine Mitchell plays Allie, the sarky, Facebook-ing keyboard warrior “activist”, who criticises the complacency of others but whose logic can send her liberalism way off-beam. The hosts Jools (Raquel Cassidy) and Jim (Elliot Cowan) are more concerned with day-to day accommodation of the changed environment, expecting a reversion to their comfortable mean, whilst Tara Fitzgerald as Teresa and Risteard Cooper as Lawrence are the hippyish slackers, who bang on about the natural birth they have just come from and who see their green-tinged, near-socialism as adequate inoculation. And so all the strands of liberal call and response are represented.

Now I would have been happy with a couple of hours of this fascinating, pointed, if admittedly wordy, to and fro, but, AW being AW, she clearly felt we needed more. So we are introduced to Mark, an orphan of Kenyan descent, who has ended up in the foster care of a traditional, Christian, Trump-voting, rural couple Richard and Laurie, doubled by Risteard Cooper and Tara Fitzgerald. The connection is the farmhouse which Jools and Jim bought from them. Mark then becomes the mouthpiece for racial politics and identity. It is a clunky device but all is forgiven pretty much as soon as Fisayo Akinade as Mark opens his mouth. Now for those that don’t know Mr Akinade, he was the comic turn as Eros in the NT Antony and Cleopatra where he near stole the show from under Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. He also starred in Barber Shop Chronicles which, for my sins, I haven’t seen, and in the Donmar’s Way of the World, St Joan and The Vote, as well as the Caryl Churchill short Pigs and Dogs, all of which I have. Here, in a series of monologues, in total contrast to the structure and mood of the group scenes, he charts the subtle, and not so subtle, racial dilemmas in his upbringing, imaging what it would be like to be a slave and describing his difficulties in describing the American racial divide to his own child. It is powerful stuff, sharp, funny and rhetorical, made more so by a very fine performance.

And there’s more. As if enough ideas haven’t been explored, AW then goes on to subvert the dramatic form in a very Churchillian (Caryl not Winnie) way and thereby offer up multiple theatrical opportunities for Mr Goold and, especially, the lighting and sound of veterans Jack Knowles and Paul Arditti. Firstly by having Fisayo Akinade playing a sheepish George HW Bush who is rounded on by the besuited, megalomaniac Trump about the Iraq War. And secondly, and this is where the fun really starts, going all out fantasy as Elliot Cowan (I think), bravely, morphs into a gold-painted, Caesar-esque unhinged tyrant, complete with bird-hooded priests, (yep you read that right), berating a nervous James Comey (Khalid Abdella again) during the infamous one-on-one meeting with Trump in the Oval Office where the POTUS allegedly tried to influence the investigation and demanded his loyalty. Mythic.

As in her previous plays AW shows she doesn’t seem to have an edit function, so even within the tripartite form she crams in so much more. References to Greek tragedy, the nature of art, politics and theatre (“art needs time, space and reflection” as Jools says – not here, AW just gets stuck in), class, incessant social media chatter and mock outrage, the lack of food and drink and their practical shortcomings, disparities in wealth between the couples. But always returning to the uncomfortable idea that the rise of Trump is a retaliation to the pious entitlement and performative shortcomings of white liberalism. And that what these people are most afraid of is losing their economic and cultural dominance to the unenlightened.

No plot, occasionally bonkers, no apologies speechifying, three hours plus, repetition and circularity. Shipwreck is so obviously flawed. But I don’t care because AW, even when she goes too far, can still slum-dunk ideas, message and theatrical thrills which the uniformly excellent cast and Rupert Goold, (and the rest of the creative team, including Miriam Buether symbolic, circular design and Luke Halls, who else, with his striking political and religious iconographic video,) greedily feast upon. It is complex, over-stuffed, baggy, ill-disciplined but in going beyond the usual incredulity at how the Orange One gets away with it, it is brilliant and telling.