Sunday, 5 August 2012

'The Duchess of Malfi' at the Sydney Opera House

An unusual choice for a Bell Shakespeare production, The Duchess of Malfi proves to entertain, frighten and mesmerise at the same time. John Bell's direction of John Webster's fierce play remains true to the brutality and drama of the script while presenting a piece of mature acting and powerful delivery. The Duchess of Malfi follows a sequence of revenge - after the young duchess is widowed her brothers wish to maintain their control over her. The strong elements of misogyny in the play, or at least patriarchy, are not entirely pertinent to the modern audience. The story fundamentally relies on the values of its own time but the Sydney Opera house viewers didn't seem to have too much of a problem with the historical aspects.

Unlike in a typical Shakespeare play, Webster does not provide any breathing room in the story, any comic relief or substitute for the intense drama. Similarly, Bell does not provide his audience with an interval, possibly in an effort to fully draw us deeper into the story. When the duchesses' brothers discover that she has married and had a baby in secret, a string of murders follow. This production deals with the deaths in an unorthodox way, in some parts it feels almost like a horror film - with realistic blood and gore, in others the act is almost a wicked puppetry, an abstracted motion. 

The minimalist set confines the actor's movement, for what is a play full of motion and change. In fact, Webster's piece seems to imitate the passion and thrill of Shakespeare's work without the poetic, complex language. It is not the most comprehensive play from the company but the sense of instinct and raw primality appears in the maturity of the acting. Lucy Bell plays the duchess herself with a dynamic haunting performance up against that of her good-hearted lover Antonio (played by Matthew Moore). The most skilful representation is that of the pain, the regret, the consequence of the characters' impassioned moments.

There are many erotic moments during the play, without the tenacity of a romantic Shakespeare, developed physically and full of obsession. It's almost as if these characters cannot control themselves when it comes to love, family or death. There are confronting moments and because of the lack of interval or downplayed scenes, the audience can feel almost as overwhelmed and emotionally wrecked as the story's creatures. The compact set is lined by closed doors, focusing on what is hidden and more importantly who - as out of those doors comes both lust and danger.

John Bell's abstract take on a play seeking for meaning and unraveling obsession accentuates our hidden intentions. Among the characters, each of them has a secret. It's only up to the audience to decide who to feel the most sorry for in this great tragedy on the stage.

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