There is a line in John Webster’s play, The Duchess of Malfi, which rings true for the duration of Eyestrings Theatre Company’s production. “I account this world a tedious theatre” says the Duchess, played by Beat...
There is a line in John Webster’s play, The Duchess of Malfi, which rings true for the duration of Eyestrings Theatre Company’s production. “I account this world a tedious theatre” says the Duchess, played by Beatrice Walker, and it is from this line that it appears director Owen Horsley and production designer Simon Anthony Wells have drawn the bulk of their inspiration. A fiercely grimacing cast open the show, setting the scene for the cruel and dark world we are about to enter. Lighting, designed by Daniel Street, and sound, by Helen Atkinson, play a key role in realising this darkness. A small number of glowing bulbs hang from the ceiling, and the climax of the play is enhanced by a sudden blackout. Subtle drawn out notes create an eery ambience and the minimalist set, comprised of merely a few wooden chairs and hooks hanging along the back wall offer up a bleak world. The cast also rarely leave the stage, which infects the production with a sense of claustrophobia; their continual presence intensifies the paranoia that is already rife. The design is indicative of a spectacle, a game, and with all of the elements combined there lingers a pervading sense that the courts are the theatre.
Webster’s play centres on the widowed Duchess who, having been forbidden to remarry by her brothers, Ferdinand (Vincent Enderby) and the Cardinal (Nicholas Figgis) secretly weds and bears a child with the lowly steward Antonio. Once discovered, her brothers turn to the assassin Bosola (Phil Cairns) to realise the vengeance they seek, and carnage ensues.
This production is slick; the play has been cut so that it runs at a sharp 100 minutes, yet as a consequence the smaller subplots have been erased leaving a fairly basic story which the cast don’t quite make up for in performance. Perhaps it has been lost through too much focus on playing around with the aesthetic, but the drama lacks height and leaves a lot to be desired if it is to have any strong emotional impact on the audience. This is particularly relevant both when the Duchess gives up her baby, and when she is strangled. This is not a comment on the actors as they are all clearly capable of strong performances, with Enderby and Figgis in particular standing out as the callous brothers; Enderby’s orders through a handheld microphone are suitably chilling as they echo around the theatre and Ferdinand’s character almost takes on a director role, watching the action from on high. However, on the whole the production is fairly understated.
Whilst the simplicity of the set, lighting and sound design is rather sophisticated, there is a failure to fully commit to a time period, as the 1920s dress, the reason for which is not made evident, and the use of a credit card as a prop for ‘gold’ jar, make the production as a whole impossible to place. It appears to be sitting on the fence in many ways, unable to commit to a fully realised time period or motivation; if the 1920s dress is perhaps supposed to be a nod towards the self-inflicted tragedy of the superficial Bright Young Things, then this isn’t fully explained. Despite this, Eyestring’s Theatre Company offer up a bold production and a strong cast who handle Webster’s text superbly.
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