By Alfie Gerzimbke
A paper handout given to me as I enter York Theatre Royal’s Studio informs me that the York Settlement Community Players was established 100 years ago, and ‘has consistently produced both classical and new plays since’. You can tell. The group’s production of John Webster’s intensely quotable 1614 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi is a polished, tightly-wound experience that gleams with a dark charm and a morbid beauty – not to mention a slew of compelling performances.
David Phillipps’ Antonio slides effortlessly between a sort of smarmy knight-errantry and paranoid anger, and has genuine chemistry with Amanda Dales as the titular Duchess, who herself gives another standout performance, mixing grace and grief together to become the beating emotional heart of the play. Delio (Mike Hickman) is a joy to watch as he flits around the stage like a curly-haired Zazu, and Paul French brings a powerful, sinister gravitas to the Machiavellian Cardinal (not to mention some truly intimidating facial hair!) that steals the spotlight every time he shows up.
However, special mention must go to Maurice Crichton as Bosola, the skeevy, villainous, revenging antihero. It truly is a pleasure to watch him spy, lie, and otherwise skulk around, as Crichton gives a tortured portrayal of the conflicted antihero with a demented sparkle in his eyes. Crichton’s Bosola also provided some of the funniest moments – his aside of ‘there’s somewhat in’t!’ as he discovers the Duchess’ pregnancy sent a thunderous chuckle throughout the audience.
Indeed, much of the play’s humour lands well. It is no small compliment to the cast, and the director, that they are able to retain the sparkle and wit of Webster’s dialogue even four hundred years after it was originally penned. Despite some trimmings of the script and a few somewhat clunky attempts at modernisation, the production feels true to Webster and true to the original script, despite some questionable and decidedly non-naturalistic choices on the part of the director, Sam Taylor.
To be clear, none of the director’s choices really hurt the production, and it’s admirable that Taylor has the confidence to experiment with the play now and again, but while some of his choices shake up the play in an intriguing way, some are unnecessary, and even confusing at times. Take the use of sound – before the play began, and even in the background of some scenes, an eerie, ambient droning noise was played. It seemed to fit with the black box environment, and the lurid, ghastly lighting that washed over the stage intermittently, but this cohesion wasn’t to last. In a particularly emotional scene that I shan’t spoil here (even though it’s hundreds of years old), a lush, mournful, but jarringly conventional orchestral piece washes over the stage, in a way that would have felt right at home in Dominic Dromgoole’s 2014 production of the play at The Globe, but here feels conspicuously traditional. This issue is exacerbated by even more inconsistent examples later on, including a track from alternative artist Woodkid, and, bizarrely, The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, as Harry Revell’s Ferdinand slow-dances with a corpse.
In a strange way, though, this last example works. Until now I haven’t mentioned the character of Ferdinand at all, and that’s because I’m still not sure what to think about this version of the character. Gone is the sleazily charismatic, borderline incestuous creep that fantasises about his sister and a ‘strong thighed bargeman’, which those familiar with Webster’s play may be expecting. Revell’s Ferdinand, for the most part, dials back the perversion, and presents to us an overly-controlling, but loving, brother (who may or may not have anger issues). This is not to criticise Revell’s acting – there is a moment where he is slapped by the Cardinal, and Revell’s physicality as he falls to the floor and wretchedly cowers is nothing short of sublime – but it did leave me slightly missing the pallid, greasy slimeball I had in mind. However, in the aforementioned bizarre doo-wop sequence, this other Ferdinand shines through, in all his unnerving glory.
And that’s the thing. There’s tonal inconsistency from time to time (see also: Margaret Hillier’s Cariola fleeing the executioners in an almost slapstick manner), but when Taylor’s unorthodox decisions succeed, the payoff is worth it. A brilliant example of this is the way Antonio and the Duchess are allowed to reunite one last time in the Echo scene. It’s heartbreaking, and it single-handedly justifies the use of non-naturalistic staging throughout the play. But on the other hand, the play’s use of modern costuming never has such a moment – the closest the production comes to using the updated setting well is the brief use of a Polaroid camera in an early movement sequence. After this, the façade of modernity is more or less dropped, and it never feels quite earned.
Despite this slight stylistic murkiness, Sam Taylor and the York Settlement Community Players have done a great job overall breathing life into Webster, and it’s clear when watching the play that the cast is having just as much fun putting a new spin on the Renaissance classic as the audience is having watching them. Fans of the play (Web-heads?) and newcomers alike are sure to enjoy this energetic and inventive powerhouse of a performance – from the beginning all the way to the gory, bitter ending.