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.

Valued Friends at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

Valued Friends

Rose Theatre Kingston, 8th October 2019

I am all for revivals of modern plays that have something to say to us right now. Assuming the play was good enough in the first place. And that the director and creative team have a clear idea of how they craft that relevance whilst still staying true to the time and place in which they were written. In my experience texts from the 1970s and before, or those written in the last 20 years, fare best in this regard but those through the 1990s, and especially the 1980s, pose the most headaches. Recreate or update? And this was, remember, a fertile period for drama after a decade or so of artistic stasis. Largely because us luvvies like nothing better than to censure society, politics and culture that shifts rightwards. Thatcherism was a heaven sent artistic opportunity.

This is the context in which Stephen Jeffreys, who passed away last year, wrote Valued Friends in 1989, which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre before a West End transfer. The original cast consisted of Peter Capaldi, Jane Horrocks, Serena Gordon, Tim McInnerney, Martin Clunes and Peter Caffrey. Four thirty-somethings, Marion (here Catrin Stewart), Paul (Sam Frenchum), Howard (Michael Marcus) and Sherry (Natalie Casey), have rented a flat in Earl’s Court then an up and coming, (they always are), part of London since meeting at uni. Posh developer Scott (Ralph Davies) wants to ponce up the block and sell on and makes them an offer he thinks they can’t refuse to get out. However the bourgeois Marion sees an opportunity to negotiate and persuades vacillating partner Paul, the relaxed in the paddock intellectual Howard and the impecunious motormouth Sherry to hold out. A few turns of the wheel later and Sherry is paid off, setting out to travel the world and find herself, and the other three have bought the flat at a discount to do it up, with the help of builder and homespun philosopher Stewart (Nicolas Tennant). High flyer Marion eventually cashes out after splitting up with man-child music journo Paul, who becomes ever more obsessed with making money from the property.

Sounds interesting eh. I can certainly see why director Michael Fentiman was drawn to reviving it and what the Rose and co-producer Original Theatre Company agreed. Especially when you consider Stephen Jeffrey’s reputation. The Libertine, which popped up at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2016 with Dominic Cooper in the lead, is probably his most famous play but Mr Jeffreys was as much teacher, in his roles at the Royal Court, as he was writer. Which, given his skill in pacing, character, structure and language, is unsurprising. Valued Friends is a very well built play, full of telling detail. I am just not sure this production fully reflected that or whether its line of attack would make sense to an audience who wasn’t there at the time it appeared. The nature of their relationship with “property” is rather different.

For trust me the desire to succeed, to get on, to make money, infected us all. And that was most obviously expressed in the delirium of property ownership. Of course that urge, that need, remains but a decade of single digit average price inflation and falling volume of transactions, despite cheap money, doesn’t compare to the madness of the late 1980s, peaking at over 30% in the year before SJ wrote Valued Friends. A group made up of a struggling journalist, a second rate stand up (Sherry), and admin worker (Marion) and a PhD student wouldn’t be contenders to buy a prime flat in inner West London today, but, trust me, there was nothing far fetched about this then for all the money illusion. SJ takes this phenomenon to make broader points about accumulation, credit, greed, the erosion of community, the rise of individualism and the failure of markets. There is more to his dialogue that meets the eye, or ear maybe, sorry mixed metaphors, but this is subtly woven in to a still credible story of friendship and relationships.

It is funny but it is not just a comedy. However it seems that Mr Fentiman didn’t quite trust that reading and decided to dial up the laughs. Now I gather Natalie Casey is best know for her work in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, Hollyoaks and West End musicals. All outside my ken I am afraid. She brings a feisty tenacity to Sherry, who keeps knocking at the comedy door despite making no money, but as an actor she is a bit full on and shouty. Conversely Ralph Davies’s reptilian Scott falters as the negotiation lengthens. And Nicolas Tennant’s turn as Stewart, whilst dissonantly amusing, rather distracts from an ending that already forces resolution. Sam Frenchum (so good in The Outsider adaptation at the Coronet), Michael Marcus and Catrin Stewart are much more sympathetic to the characterisation I think but still feel a little awkward at times, especially in the on-off relationship of the couple.

Michael Taylor’s set design, which shifts from student-y squalor to swish minimalism, does the job, and Madeleine Girling’s costume are spot on, but the lighting (Nic Farham) and sound (Richard Hammerton) are a bit too conspicuous.

Happy enough, especially for my tenner investment here, but couldn’t help thinking what it would be like to see a production of a play by Mr Jeffreys that really hit home.