The Duchess of Malfi, theatre review: 'Gemma Arterton is luminous'

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Shakespeare's Globe, London: Dominic Dromgoole's production gets the Globe's first season off to a cracking start

The first of several pleasurable surprises is the smallness and intimacy of the Globe's new indoor Jacobean theatre. You feel as if you are sitting in an exquisite little jewel box or doll's house. 

Designed by the architect Jon Greenfield and named after the Globe's visionary founder, it's a beautifully compact 340-seat chamber, built in pale oak, with two galleries that embrace the pit and the thrust stage in an elegant horse-shoe.  It creates the sense that you are within touching distance of the actors (as, indeed, some spectators at the sides are). 

The conspiratorial atmosphere is enhanced by the fact that the venue, reverting to seventeenth century practice, is almost solely lit by beeswax candles.  These flicker in sconces or are hand-held by the performers or glow in the seven great naked-flame candelabras that are lowered and raised from the baroque ceiling with its putti, glided stars and painting of Luna, goddess of the Moon.  It's true that our attitude to candle-light is rather different to that of the Jacobeans for whom it was a necessity rather something associated with festivals and special occasions. 

The decorative ceiling of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe The decorative ceiling of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe But any fears that the new Playhouse would be offering a prettified heritage experience in reviving this convention are firmly allayed by Dominic Dromgoole's striking and strongly-cast inaugural production of The Duchess of Malfi

With its morbid imagery, perverted desires and skulking intriguers, Webster's tragedy is well-chosen to show-case the Wanamaker's aptitude for conjuring up the shadowy and the shuddering.  “Oh this gloomy world!/In what a shadow or deep pit of darkness,/Doth womanish and fearful mankind live!” declares Bosola, the spy whose transition from malcontent hard-nut to horrified voice of conscience is vigorously charted here by Sean Gilder. 

The shining exception to this murky viciousness is the widowed heroine who is ghoulishly persecuted by her two oppressive brothers when they discover that she has been living in secret wedlock with her steward.

General views inside the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse during the photocall for 'The Duchess Of Malfi' at Shakespeare's Globe General views inside the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse during the photocall for The Duchess Of Malfi at Shakespeare's Globe The luminous Gemma Arterton beautifully captures the multi-faceted quality of the Duchess  – from the teasing playfulness with which she woos the socially inferior Antonio (the attractively trusting Alex Waldmann) to the calm aristocratic fortitude with she meets death, but not before the poignant motherly request that her little boy be given “some syrup for his cold”.

David Dawson is electrifying as her twin brother Ferdinand – lanky, with a warped elfin face and positively juddering with repressed incestuous passion as he pruriently imagines his sister in the act of sin with “some strong-thied bargeman”. 

n the past, I have found it hard to take seriously the scenes in which he torments her with a dead hand and with waxworks of her supposedly murdered husband and son. But here, thanks to Dawson's transfixing performance and the prevailing creepiness of ambience (the first of those episodes is performed in pitch darkness), I found them psychologically and socially persuasive.

The experimental first season will include a co-production with the Royal Opera on Cavalli's L'Ormindo and a revival of The Malcontent played by a company of 12 to 16-year-olds. 

Dromgoole's Duchess of Malfi gets it off to a cracking start.

To February 16; 020 7401 9919

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