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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Duchess of Malfi

"Stay" quoth Reputation, "Do not forsake me; for it is my nature, If once I part from any man I meet, I am never found again." — Ferdinand
The Duchess of Malfi
A view of the Sam Wanamaker playhouse (Photo: Pete Le May)
Opening London's newest yet oldest theatre, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the indoor Jacobean theatre at Shakespeare's Globe is John Webster's 1613 Jacobean tragedy of murder, sex and implied incestuous thoughts, The Duchess of Malfi. The indoor theatre of 340 seats has been cleverly constructed within the foyer space at the Globe. It is the prettiest little theatre, lit mostly by beeswax candles hung on candelabra that can be raised and lowered or extinguished to recreate night time scenes. On the ceiling are stars and paintings of ornate sun, moon and clouds with angels and cherubim. A gallery houses the musicians and doubles as a playing area. The frame is English oak and the seats have some modest cushioning but where I was sitting the leg room was not generous.

Drawings were found at Worcester College Oxford in the late 1960s of an early theatre at first thought to be by England's first classical architect, Inigo Jones, but later attributed to his pupil John Webb (1611 - 1672). It is on these drawings that the Wanamaker Playhouse has been based. It is named for Sam Wanamaker the American actor who put so much time, effort and money into establishing a reproduction Shakespearean theatre on London's South Bank close to the site of the original Rose Theatre.

Gemma Arterton's duchess is as pretty as a picture of an innocent and Antonio (Alex Waldmann) her lover — later her second husband, who also happens to be her servant, her steward—, are naive players in a grown up world of power seeking and corruption. Sean Gilder as the spy Bosola is clearly a man of the world as he contrives to trap the duchess with the apricot scam to expose her pregnancy.

The duchess's two brothers are sinister and evil, strong players who use their sister as a political pawn. James Garnon, a veteran of Globe acting is magnificent as the ironic and cruel Cardinal, a prelate with mistresses and vice. David Dawson is unhinged as the duchess's twin brother Duke Ferdinand with great rushes of near madness and malevolent eccentricity, his voice louder than is necessary in this tiny space. Dawson is pale faced, and his legs spindly, his complexion contrasting with Busola's weather beaten features. There are undoubted allusions to incest in his meetings with his sister. It is hard to fathom how the duchess escaped the evil genes in her family.

The costumes are beautiful and authentic with lacy ruffs and farthingale skirts. The production, like the venue, is very new and the performances may have to bed in for the play to be truly chilling rather than inducing nervous laughter but the setting is so charming as to make this a winning venue.

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The Duchess of Malfi
by John Webster
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Giles Cooper, David Dawson, James Garnon, Sean Gilder, Alex Waldmann, Denise Gough
With: John Dougall, Sarah MacRae, Brendan O'Hea, Paul Rider, Dickon Tyrrell, Archir Bradfield/George Morris
Design: Jonathan Fensom
Choreography by Sian Williams
Composer: Claire van Kampen
Running time: Two hours 50 minutes including one interval
Box Office: 020 7401 9919
Booking to 16th February 2014
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th January 2014 performance at The Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe, New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT (Rail/Tube: London Bridge)

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