‘The Duchess of Malfi’: Theater Review

After igniting Tennessee Williams’s 'Summer and Smoke' with intense heat, director Rebecca Frecknall serves up Webster’s tale of revenge, very cold.

Lydia Wilson , Khalid Abdalla, Leo Bill, Ioanna Kimbook, Michael Marcus, Ciarán Owens, Shalini Peiris, Jack Riddiford, Jethro Skinner, Kalungi Ssebandeke.

2 hours 45 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

'The Duchess of Malfi': Theater Review

The Almeida, London, 325 seats, £42.50 ($57) top. Opened, Dec. 10, 2019, reviewed Dec 12. Closes January 25, 2020. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Production: An Almeida Theatre production of a play in two acts by John Webster.

Creative: Directed by Rebecca Frecknall. Sets, Chloe Lamford; costumes, Nicky Gillibrand; lighting, Jack Knowles; sound, George Dennis; production stage manager, Daniel Palmer.

Cast: Lydia Wilson , Khalid Abdalla, Leo Bill, Ioanna Kimbook, Michael Marcus, Ciarán Owens, Shalini Peiris, Jack Riddiford, Jethro Skinner, Kalungi Ssebandeke.

More Legit

  • Frozen review musical

    Warmth and Humor Pervade Pantages Production of 'Frozen' the Musical

    In 2013, Disney’s “Frozen” hit screens like a 100 mile-per-hour snowball, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon in which little girls and boys pranced about dressed in Anna and Elsa and Olaf costumes while belting aloud “Let It Go,” Elsa’s feminist anthemic response to ice powers rendering her a societal outcast. The animated movie won two [...]

  • My Name Is Lucy Barton review

    'My Name is Lucy Barton': Theater Review

    Laura Linney is in love. Just watch the radiant expression on her face as she wraps her arms around the character of Lucy Barton, a role she played in two separate engagements at the Bridge Theater in London, and is now reprising on Broadway in “My Name is Lucy Barton.” The feeling is obviously mutual, [...]

  • 'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to

    'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to Air Weekly, Syndicate Nationally (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal” will become nationally syndicated, marking a first for a program about the Great White Way. Beginning in fall 2020, the monthly show will increase frequency to air weekly. The show is hosted and executive-produced by 12-time Emmy Award winner Tamsen Fadal, a news anchor at WPIX, the channel that initially [...]

  • Laura Linney My Name Is Lucy

    Listen: What Laura Linney Learns From Bad Shows

    For Laura Linney, every stage experience is a learning experience. “Even the bad ones!” she cheerfully declared on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Even the ones that are really bad, and I’ve been really bad in some things,” continued the Emmy winner, currently back on Broadway [...]

  • 'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With

    'Betrayal' Star Zawe Ashton Signs With CAA (EXCLUSIVE)

    Zawe Ashton has signed with CAA, Variety has learned. Most recently seen on Broadway in the hit revival of Harold Pinter’s “Betryal,” Ashton is the definition of a multi-hyphenate. In addition to being an in-demand actress, Ashton is a director, playwright and author. While earning critical raves for “Betrayal,” Ashton made her debut as a [...]

  • Michael Feinstein Kristin Chenoweth Sutton Foster

    Jerry Herman Memorial Set for Feb. 3 at Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

    A memorial service for Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman will be held at 3 p.m. on Feb. 3 at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Michael Feinstein is producing the tribute, which will feature performances from a number of notable legit stars, including Kristin Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, Sutton Foster, Kelli O’Hara, Bernadette Peters and Betty Buckley. Angela [...]

  • Fran Drescher 'Good Fortune' film premiere,

    Fran Drescher's 'The Nanny' Getting Broadway Musical Makeover

    Fran Drescher’s legendary character Fran Fine – known for her nasally voice and gravity-defying hair-dos in the ’90s sitcom “The Nanny” – is coming to Broadway. Drescher and Peter Marc Jacobson, who created the original series, will write the book for “The Nanny: A New Musical,” which is in development. The series followed Drescher as [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content