In Malfi, it's murder as usual. But, for this latest stab at The Duchess of Malfi, Philip Franks has left behind its Jacobean origins, ditched ruffs and high collars, and set the tale of the duchess who dared in 1950s Italy. He and his designer Leslie Travers provide stark images - a sparse grey court, the scarlet outfit of the Cardinal's mistress, the filmed projections of two of the dead bodies, the moonlit clock in one of Mussolini's monolithic stations. Yet beneath the sharp cut and elegant trim of the Dior New Look, the military uniform clinking with shiny medals, are characters whose passions hiss and steam.
The restrained visual stylisation is complemented by a stark psychological realism, not least in the excellent performances of Imogen Stubbs as the Duchess and Sebastian Harcombe as the butcher Bosola. Stubbs begins the play as a beautifully coiffured member of the aristocracy, whose lipsticked calm conceals a wild heart. Her secret marriage, her disguised pregnancy, and the later revelation of her liaison to her viciously controlling brothers, rapidly bring about her descent.
Yet her wild-haired confusion is coupled with a remarkable composure. As she mistakes the palace cellars for a prison, believes her husband Antonio and their child to be dead, and realises how she has been duped into trusting her brother's spy, Stubbs's portrayal grows magnificently.
Indeed, all the casting is of a high calibre. James Albrecht's enigmatic Antonio, Timothy Walker's chillingly manic Prince Ferdinand, Guy Williams's stone-cold Cardinal and Melanie Jessop as his attention-craving mistress, along with Jane Bertish's wily maid, all inhabit their roles with compelling ease.
Aside from the satire and mockery that disguise his true character, Harcombe's shadowy Bosola is hard to read. His is a tricky role: here he's a misfit rather than a slimy serpent, which makes his regret at the end more believable.
There's an unhealthy hint of incest in Ferdinand's relationship with his sister, a suggestion of a roving eye on her part, and distinctly masochistic tendencies on the parts of both the Cardinal and Bosola. It is to Franks's credit that he plays up the interpretative opportunities without overdoing even the sexual overtones. And the stench of a creeping, murderous malaise is not at the expense of the play's flashes of wit and humour.
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