Given the rampant jealousy, intrigue, court corruption, stabbings and strangulation – not to mention vulpine incestuous desire – it’s unsurprising that director Rebecca Frecknall’s production of the Jacobean tragedy “The Duchess of Malfi,” now playing at the Almeida Theatre in London, has more than its fair share of chills and (blood) spills. But while the entire staging radiates an illuminating, icy calm that reveals complex emotions, it comes at the expense of thrills.
“Why should I be closed up?” asks Lydia Wilson’s Duchess. The line acquires more resonance than usual thanks to Chloe Lamford’s viciously cold, clean set design, which creates a stage-wide, white-tiled glass box in which the Duchess and several other characters are kept. It is a display cabinet in which she is spied upon not only by the audience but, crucially, her vengeful brother Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford).
Not so much unwilling as utterly unable even to consider that his young widowed sister might remarry, Ferdinand buys the services of Bosola (gruff Leo Brill) to spy on her. The Duchess, however, is more than a match for them and, in secret, marries Antonio (Khalid Abdalla) and has three children by him. But when Bosola feeds her apricots, a fruit believed to taste sickening to pregnant women, he works out what has been going on and a succession of grisly murders ensues so that Ferdinand can have vengeance for his will being disobeyed and, ultimately, his lust frustrated.
Playwright John Webster, famous described by T.S. Eliot as seeing “the skull beneath the skin,” revels in the horror, his language ripe with imagery. And for much of the play, with the actors coolly stalking the set in Nicky Gillibrand’s contemporary suits and clothes, his language and the feelings it engenders are underlined by Frecknall and Lamford’s stark approach.
On the plus side, the underwritten relationship between the Duchess and Antonio thrives. The ache and the love between them is unusually well-illustrated because Frecknall gives her actors space and time to express, in charged-up silence, what the text traditionally denies them. Both Wilson and Abdalla have an uninflected, commanding stillness that draws audiences to them.
But, as in “Julius Caesar,” problems arise with the early death of the title character, after which the play moves into a different gear. The plotting speeds up with Bosola being double-crossed, the body-count rocketing and Ferdinand turning openly insane; it’s here that Frecknall’s severity falls short. Her analytical take on the proceedings continues to reveal detail that often gets lost in a headlong rush, but because the play’s pulse doesn’t rise to match the events, tension is leeched from the proceedings.
That said, armed with Jack Knowles’ clinical lighting and George Dennis’s eerie soundscape, Frecknall’s atmosphere is supremely well-sustained. Better yet for a play (and an era) less than overflowing with sustained roles for women, Frecknall extends the character and agency of the Duchess by having her ghost stalk the action after her death, to shivery effect.
After playing a conniving Kate Middleton in Mike Bartlett’s “King Charles III” in London and on Broadway, Wilson dials down the manipulation but remains effortlessly high-status throughout. She dominates not only because Webster gives her the most opportunities for sympathy, but because most of the men’s performances are less textured.
Although the Duchess is ultimately destroyed by the male society that controls her, Wilson’s elegantly maintained surface belies the emotions coursing beneath. That degree of measured indication, rather than hot display, is entirely in sync with the chilly directorial approach. But as sustained as the latter is, it comes at a price.