Review: The Duchess of Malfi, at Almeida Theatre
02 January, 2020 — By Lucy Popescu
The Duchess of Malfi: Shalini Peiris, Leo Bill, Lydia Wilson, Ioanna Kimbook and Khalid Abdalla. Photo: Marc Brenner
REBECCA Frecknall’s stylised production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi explores a brutal patriarchal world where women’s rights and sexuality are controlled by men, and they are forced to navigate a corrupt hierarchy of power.
When the widowed duchess (Lydia Wilson) dares to marry her steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla), a man beneath her station, and has a family with him, her brothers consider it a step too far.
Incensed, the duchess’s twin, Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) and the Cardinal (Michael Marcus) exact a bloody revenge.
The duchess’s home, which becomes her prison, is a tiled, glass box. Here she is spied upon by Bosola (Leo Bill), her brothers’ henchman. Chloe Lamford’s clinical set design evokes a stifling atmosphere where women are relentlessly exposed and can be dispatched with ease.
After her death, the duchess haunts the space with her fellow female victims as they watch the bloodbath unfold in front of them.
Frecknall draws out the play’s contemporary resonances. The women wear evening dress and the men are in suits. The duchess is barefoot throughout, somehow emphasising her poise, while shabby Bosola wanders around in his socks.
The orgy of killing at the end, played out in slow motion, reminds us of how violence begets violence. This final gory display of human depravity may have been conceived over 400 years ago but Frecknall’s reimagining holds a mirror up to the dark corners of our own world.
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