Sam Wanamaker Theatre Review: The Duchess of Malfi

Shakespeare’s Globe is now home to a new and picturesque indoor venue, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It is a small and intimate venue that can pack 340 people tightly into a pit and two tiers of galleries.

There are several objects that draw your attention as you walk in but the main one is the innovation in the use of candlelight. The theatre is constructed to be just like a traditional seventeenth century theatre, which can also utilize artificial light when necessary. Like the Globe, the seats are not overly comfortable yet this is hardly noticeable as the way the theatre is constructed forces you to pay attention and it is very hard to think of doing anything else.

With an indoor theatre at the Globe, their season can now operate in the winter as well as the summer. ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ was chosen to open the theatre and John Webster’s play is impeccably suited to this new theatre and could not be more of a perfect match. The play is masked in darkness and the effects of the candle-lit venue works wonders for the darker scenes in the play. Some of these, like in the scene where Ferdinand gives the Duchess a fake wax hand, take place in pitch black and gives the atmosphere in the theatre a terribly thrilling edge.

The Duchess of Malfi is a tragedy set in Italy and focuses on the status of women, corruption, the misuse of power and discusses ideas of reputation. The play begins with the Duchess, a widow who has been encouraged not to remarry by her brotehrs, falling in love with a man outside of her class. Upon finding out that their sister is remarried and has given birth to children they plot revenge, which leads to terrible consequences and finally ends with them destroying themselves in the process.

Gemma Arterton has been cast in the role of the Duchess and has previously performed in Shakespeare in the role of Rosaline at the Globe in Love Labour’s Lost back in 2007. Gemma’s performance as the Duchess is truly amazing and is great on many different levels. Her performance is natural, enticing and show-stopping although there could have been more of a noticeable on-stage sexual connection between her and her secret lover, Antonio.

Arterton is not the only cast member who produces an absolutely brilliant performance and the most notable are those of Ferdinand and Bosola. David Dawson plays the Duchess’ brother, Ferdinand, and his performance is simultaneously mesmerising and terrifying. He is tense and edgy and his portrayal of Ferdinand allows the audience to witness and almost understand his incestuous feelings for the Duchess.

Sean Glider plays Bosola in this interpretation of Webster’s play and he gives a truly villainous presentation of the typical Jacobean stock character. His performance is exhilarating and allows the final scene of the play to be presented superbly, in which Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal all die, the rest of the deaths are avenged and the truth is revealed to other characters.

The play is a brilliant match for the theatre and the cast has been selected with great care and attention. Some may complain about the positioning of the candelabra’s and the supporting pillars but the play is so hypnotic and entrancing it does not take much to adjust at all. The average price of a ticket at the Playhouse is just £35 and this is a somewhat steal for any theatre lover. With this play already being rather well known and on a second-year Literature module at this University, I would thoroughly recommend trying to get hold of any tickets that remain.

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See what I originally thought about The Duchess of Malfi when it was on my Part 2 Reading list here.

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