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Reviews of THE DUCHESS OF MALFI: February - March 2012

Bodyguard /
Executioner /
The Duchess of Malfi
by John Webster
directed by Bruce Jamieson
Greenwich Playhouse, London

The play divided critics, who were either attracted or repelled by the tone and style of the production. The majority of reviewers, however (nine out of the thirteen below), gave the production three or more stars or otherwise recommended it.

The first five reviews specifically mentioned my contribution.

Pictures by Robert Gooch 

24 February 2012
The Stage
(No stars, very positive)

Bruce Jamieson (The Cardinal),
Alice de Sousa (The Duchess of Malfi)
and Darren Stamford (Antonio)

photo: Robert Gooch

As the Galleon Theatre Company vacates Greenwich Playhouse after 17 years as the resident company at the venue it established, it chooses The Duchess of Malfi as its final production.

In among the concoction of dastardly deed-doers, Damian Quinn is outstanding as the unscrupulous Bosola, who develops somewhat of a conscience as he is forced to commit increasingly horrific acts of violence. Full of relentless charm and disarmingly dashing, Quinn's Bosola is a bit like Bret Easton Ellis' Patrick Bateman - charismatic, but with somewhat of an edge.

Although all the cast members do an impressive job, special mention must go to the looming trio of Martin Foreman, Phil Gerrard and Alex Reece, who act as an array of general henchmen. All three are suitably unnerving, and at times completely terrifying. Contrasting nicely with Emma Grace Arends' sweet Cariola, convincingly portrayed as a dainty doll of a girl who seems destined to be doomed in such a sinister setting.

Catherine Usher

24 February 2012
4 stars

Alice de Sousa (The Duchess of Malfi)

photo: Robert Gooch

George Bernard Shaw's description of John Webster as 'the Tussaud Laureate' is appropriate: the people and events depicted in 'The Duchess of Malfi' wouldn't seem out of place in the Chamber of Horrors on Marylebone Road. But there's a lot more to Webster, Shakespeare's contemporary, than waxwork monsters and explicit scenes, as Alice de Sousa's riveting production demonstrates at Greenwich Playhouse.

Webster's classic revenge tragedy with its many plot-twists begins when a wealthy Duchess is forbidden from remarrying. After arranging a secret a wedding with her servant, Antonio, she endures the consequences of the eventual discovery. First performed in 1614, the play presents the Duchess as woman who 'stains the time past and lights the time to come', with her virtue, in a 'rank pasture'. Greed, oppression and inequality in the family reflect the bankrupt morality of public life. The contemporary background of plague-ridden Europe accounts, some critics claim, for Webster's stark pessimism and visceral language. Others accuse him pandering to the bloody- thirsty tastes of his audience, at a time when graphic violence and a stage littered with bodies was the mark of a successful play.

Alice de Sousa as the Duchess delivers a cool portrayal of understated dignity, the still centre of a maelstrom of horror. Her evil elder brother played by Bruce Jamieson, who also directs, is a physically powerful, narrow-eyed Cardinal, whose sadism is signalled by offstage sounds of beatings and female screams. His mistress, played with a tacky WAG-like poise by Tanya Winsor, contrasts with the loyal servant-girl Cariola, Emma grace Amends, whose early warnings to her mistress make her fate all the more terrifying.

Damian Quinn captures the insouciance of malcontent Bosola, who cynically asks, 'Whose throat must I cut?' when offered a job. His eaves-dropping and snitching made him resemble a seventeenth century phone-tapper. Robin Holden is striking as the charismatically unhinged younger brother Ferdinand. Darren Stamford is endearing as the hapless Antonio; he and his loyal friend Delio, Alexander Neal, bring welcome moments of warmth with their scenes together. Martin Foreman, Phil Gerrard and Alex Reece make the flesh creep as the Cardinal's instruments of violence.

A strong soundtrack of deep fog-horn sounds, startling bangs and raucous heavy metal rock add to the growing sense of terror. With few moments of tender romance, Philip Jones's lighting ranges from brilliant sunlight to ever-deepening shadow as the plot becomes increasingly claustrophobic.

The choice of modern dress reinforces the play's relevance to the present day, and Natasha Piper's costumes are superbly detailed, to include a Cardinal's belt with a sacred picture on the buckle and extended dagger-like points on Ferdinand's shoes. All in all, this production conveys the atmosphere of John Webster's powerful imagery. His dialogue lingers in the memory, including lines like that which describes a politician as 'the devil's quilted anvil'.

This is the final appearance of Galleon Theatre Company at this venue, because the hostel which houses it housed is to take over the accommodation for Olympic visitors. It's a tragedy for the area that a fine company is to be ousted for commercial reasons, but it's to be hoped that appeals to Greenwich Council and local MPs will aid their search for new premises. Local supporters are urged to contact them.

Sheila Cornelius

undated, viewed 26 Feb 12

Tanya Winsor (Julia)and
Damian Quinn (Bosola)

photo: Robert Gooch

The Duchess of Malfi is the final production to be staged at the Greenwich Playhouse by Galleon Theatre Company. The theatre will sadly go dark in April 2012 after seventeen years as a well known and significant south east London theatre producing venue because the landlord, Beds and Bar, chose to not renew the lease.

Perhaps as a response, the resident Galleon Theatre Company who have become known for staging classic plays, have chosen to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, in an elegant, intense and intelligent modern dress staging of Webster's popular tragedy from 1612-1613.

The Duchess of Malfi shows us how two murderous and avaricious aristocratic brothers (Duke Ferdinand and his brother the Cardinal) carry out revenge against their sister, the Duchess of Malfi, for refusing their insistence she should remain a widow and ensure her fortune is not lost to them. Instead, Malfi stands up for herself and secretly marries her steward for love even though he is not even a member of the nobility. The production packs plenty of punch into its sparely staged portrayal of a deeply decadent and corrupt courtly world, where three dark suited sinister functionaries of the Cardinal played by Martin Foreman, Phil Gerrard and Alex Reece manage to be as disturbing as any agents in a totalitarian state. The actors wisely make the most of the grandeur of Webster's magisterial and often electrifying blank verse; rather than just relying on the shocks and chills of the plot. The actors speak the verse as it should be spoken - as both meaningful and musical.

To director Bruce Jamieson's credit and aided by some fine ensemble actingthe production fully recognizes the play's undoubted and unnerving delight in violence, horror and the macabre but also shows this is tempered by Webster's profoundly critical view of the machinations of power, the unpleasantness of misogynistic attitudes towards women and the brutality and corruption rampant among the high born and powerful. Webster may have been something of a nihilist, but he was most often a profoundly moral (and sometimes political) one .This is exemplified in the production by the outstanding performance of Damian Quinn as Bosola, who is played as a handsome, charming and mercenary malcontent, looking like a well-dressed, if slightly unshaven corporate lawyer. The attractive and rakish Quinn succeeds in making his character's unexpected discovery that he has a conscience after he has sexually abused Emma Grace Arends' Cariola and gone on to help murder her mistress the Duchess to be believable for the audience, which is no mean feat.The production relies more on costumes, props and music rather than scenery and Natasha Piper has costumed the actors to remind us that this play isn't just about the behaviour of renaissance courtiers. The powerful Cardinal (Bruce Jamieson) is dark and expensively suited except for his signature garnish of princely red socks and pocket handkerchief and looks as any powerful politician or international technocrat might do. In one scene he is called from his private quarters (we hear off stage thwacks and screams of joy) by his officials and nonchalantly emerges on stage clutching a cane, while we glimpse his mistress Julia complete in slutty Nun's headdress and little else, also clutching a similar instrument of sado-masochism . The Cardinal is unembarrassed by being disturbed and simply eager to get back to his pleasures. Tanya Winsor's Julia is played as a ravishing and enticing sex bomb to great effect.

In contrast, the Cardinal's younger brother Ferdinand The Duke (Robin Holden) is scruffier in his leather jacket and trousers much as a dotcom billionaire might choose. However, both are played as characters as charming as they are murderous and unscrupulous. The production also gains much from its other two female roles, Emma Grace Arends' Cariola looks as if she is fragile enough to be made of porcelain in her twin set and pearls, but turns out to be made of surprisingly stern and firery stuff and Alice De Sousa's Duchess of Malfi is suitably sincere and courageous in taking on her brothers. The Duchess like her husband Antonio who is played by Darren Stamford as a decent person they seem lost in the evil world they inhabit, but for the audience they are the fundamental moral touchstones of an examination of the abuse of power by those who posses it. Recommended.

Steve Barfield

undated, viewed 3 Mar 12
"makes for an entertaining evening"

Barry Clarke (Castruchio) and
Damian Quinn (Bosola)

Robert Gooch

On the verge of being forced from their home of twenty years to make way for gratuitous commercial Olympic opportunity, the Galleon Theatre company have chosen Webster's classic violent revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi as the piece with which they will tread the well worn boards for the last time. Producer Alice de Sousa fills the title role with some relish and Director Bruce Jamieson plays the part of the depraved Cardinal, her brother, with equivalent enthusiasm.

The funeral of the Duchess' first husband serves to introduce the characters one by one and make clear that, visually, the play has been drastically modernised. The Duchess wears fitted trousers and a leather jacket, with only a demure fascinator nodding to the grandeur of costumes in more traditional productions. Her brothers, the Cardinal and the frantic Ferdinand (Robin Holden), are also toughened up with a splash of leather and some stick-on tattoos, while the Cardinal's Virgin Mary belt buckle initiates the outwardly blasphemous trend which consistently elicits more giggles than gasps from the audience.

The crux of the matter is presented quite promptly - the Duchess' brothers are adamant that she will not marry again, for a variety of reasons, their collective greed and Ferdinand's incestuous obsession with her presented as foremost among them. In haste she remarries her steward, rock-steady Antonio (Darren Stamford), in a secret ceremony conducted by her mistress Cariola (Emma Grace Arends). Arends who, from here on is notable for embracing her role completely, whether fending off the violent sexual advances of one third of the male company or instigating rare moments of frivolity for the Duchess.

The downward spiral of misery is thus set in motion, and the events which follow are a convoluted assortment of deceit, sex, violence and blunders. Much is made of the Cardinal's transgressions with his mistress Julia (Tanya Windsor), who is in turn married to the most quintessential cuckold imaginable, Castruchio (Barry Clarke). Through all the shifts in focus and concurrent blasts of a strange and disconcerting horn which punctuate them, Bosola (Damian Quinn) is a constant source of drama and intrigue. Comically dismal and expertly deceitful, Bosola is, perhaps unwittingly, the star of this production with Quinn adeptly portraying his opportunist tendencies alongside his burgeoning remorse for the murders he commits.

Multipurpose Cardinal's men (Martin Foreman, Phil Gerrard and Alex Reece) also serve as prison guards and executioners, receiving perhaps their strangest incarnation as looming leather-aproned, wellington-clad assistants to Ferdinand's dubious doctor when he begins his sporadically convincing descent into madness. Costumes designed by Natasha Piper, are as plentiful as they are varied and an impressive feat, from Julia's erotic Nun ensemble to Cariola's expertly decorous and prim attire throughout. Excusing a fog-horn fiasco, the music is well chosen and suitably melodramatic at key moments, such as the otherwise slightly dubious Duchess' haunting scene.

The Duchess of Malfi is an ambitious undertaking and it is fitting that the Galleon Theatre Company has pulled out the stops for a memorable final production at the Greenwich Playhouse. The depth of feeling written into the fabric of the lead roles by Spencer is somewhat diluted in the case of all but Bosola, and the focus is firmly placed on shock and violence, culminating in numerous interesting fight scenes directed by Ian McCracken. Overall, the production makes for an entertaining evening.

Vanessa Bunn

undated, viewed 29 Feb 12
(No stars, generally negative)

Phil Gerrard and Alex Reece
(Cardinal's Men)
Alice de Sousa (Duchess),
Robin Holden (Duke Ferdinand)
Emma Grace Arends (Cariola)

Robert Gooch

Jacobean drama has certainly been a strong presence on the British scene in the past year-from Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling at Southwark Playhouse to Heywood's A Woman Killed With Kindness at the National Theatre, as well as Ford's own 'Tis a Pity She's A Whore at the Barbican. The Old Vic will be staging a version of the Duchess of Malfi later this month, and Greenwich Playhouse's founding and resident company Galleon Theatre have aptly chosen as their final play at the venue a dark, gothic, sexual revenge tragedy appropriate for the intimate, confrontational upstairs space.

Unfortunately, it's a production that starves for attention, displacing all the flavour of the Jacobean tragedy for a low-key marathon through its sexual nuances; it's a poor production-but this shouldn't be any excuse to justify the closure of the theatre, or the lack of support from the local council in finding a new home for the company in the local area.

The narrative remains quite loyal to Webster's original, portraying the downfall of the Duchess of Malfi who marries steward Antonio to the disappointment and fury of her two brothers: Ferdinand and the Cardinal himself. Whilst Ferdinand becomes increasingly prone to violent outbursts, he sends Bosola, sentenced to the galleys for murder, to spy on the Duchess so he can prove her guilt.

This re-imagining of Duchess of Malfi is an exercise in excess that clouds the play, reducing it to a curious pastiche, from the Cardinal's vicious and vulgar public displays of erotic fascinations to power struggles dominated by reductive gender supremacy and a tone that displaces any danger from those currencies of lust and violent catapults of authority. It's a naive and at times highly problematic staging that contradicts the play's exploration of female identity in a patriarchal society enforced through religious systemics.

For such a gothic, candle-lit vigil to Jacobean drama, suspense is played out before it emerges in the thick fog of the plot, thus displacing any emotive power from the unfolding events. The religious undertones of Webster's tragedy are overshadowed by a curious over-emphasis-a reductive linking of the play's sexual politics with its critique of religious practice. This dominating dramaturgical device throws off the mechanics of the play itself, reducing the protagonists to pawns in a convoluted love triangle, unaided by the atemporarlity of the production. If the contemporary costumes-a distinct and elegant feature of the production designed by Natasha Piper-ground the adaptation in a contemporary discourse, the rest of the visual language becomes counter-intuitive-daggers and guns, sacrosanct Bibles and a set of body-guards that suddenly become the Spanish Inquisition, as well as an indistinct soundtrack that uses cinematic language to provoke emotional response, whilst occasionally throwing in some heavy metal.

What's striking about Galleon Theatre's production of Duchess of Malfi is the lack of consideration for the nuances of the heroine's character; instead of an authoritative, dominating and emancipated risk-taker, she is portrayed as arrogant and stubborn, thus displacing any hierarchy of characters that can sustain the politics of the play. This emphasis on the after-effect of a character's action rather than its significance means the acting in the production feels, at times, misdirected, anticipating the emotion before it surfaces and removing the subtext that provides the play its texture. Notable exceptions are Damian Quinn as Bosola, Emma Grace Arends as dutiful Cariola and Martin Foreman's physically vivid and playful rendition of one of the Cardinal's Men.

Produced by Alice De Sousa and directed by Bruce Jamieson, Duchess of Malfi is a weak albeit ambitious production that, in its attempt to shout loudly about struggles that still dominate contemporary society, levels the subtext and political undertones of Webster's play. That being said, it would be a mistake to pinpoint the work of this resident theatre company on just one production, and Galleon Theatre's loss of a home and the inherent closure of the Greenwich Playhouse are certainly a cultural loss that deserves more attention.

Diana Damian

27 February 2012
4 stars

Tanya Winsor (Julia) and
Bruce Jamieson (Cardinal)

Robert Gooch

This engaging production of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi makes a fitting curtain call for the Galleon Theatre Company and the Greenwich Playhouse who are facing an unceremonious kicking-out from their current premises by grasping landlords.

Webster's play is one of a wave of revenge tragedies currently on stage in London. In it the widowed Duchess (Alice de Sousa) is a good woman misused by her brothers Prince Ferdinand (Robin Holden) and the Cardinal (Bruce Jamieson). They have plan to keep her from remarrying for their own reputations and selfish ends. But the Duchess defies them and marries commoner Antonio (Darren Stamford) in secret. Ferdinand hires intelligencer Bosola (Damian Quinn) to keep an eye and when she and Antonio are found out, what results is a murderous trail of treachery, sex, and violence.

Bruce Jamieson's production is sparse in its design with nothing but a few red curtains, some makeshft furniture and some gaudy religious icons. The production's punch is delivered in ways other than the visual. The cast as a whole is on good form, right down to the supporting roles. De Sousa's strong willed and enduring Duchess, is accompanied by a wonderfully tender Emma Grace Arend as Cariloa. Also, Holden's Ferdinand, played with a ferocious and maniacal spite, provides great support to Jamieson's brutal and domineering Cardinal. There is also a great rapport between the various cliques while Quinn's Bosola connects them all, imbuing this marvellously enigmatic character with an unexpected likeablity.

Jamieson's modern-dress production gives Webster's text breathing space. There is a suggestion, via the cast's mostly black and white attire, of modern day world of organised crime. But despite the stilettos, and mohair sweaters, a contemporary setting is never forced upon the play.

Jamieson also doesn't shy away from the violence of the play, nor from its tense sense of the sexual. But it's never overdone or gratuitous. Even when the saucy Julia, coolly played by Tanya Winsor, sensuously tongues the image of Christ on the crucifix to seal her bond of silence for the Cardinal's indulgence, it feels unnervingly organic despite the outrageousness blasphemy.

The use of music, directed by by Robert Gooch, with Alan Duthie consulting, is excellent, bringing a filmic quality to the production - the music acting as a sound track to the action. It's interesting to see this used in theatre, but the choice of music successfully adds to the atmosphere, bringing shape to an otherwise sparsely designed production, bringing a suitable film noir bleakness to proceedings while not impeding the verse. (This is not entirely true of the klaxon employed at the start of the play, nor of the bursts of heavy metal during Fredinand's madness scene).

There are other moments where things fall flat. When the ensemble play the Cardinal's henchmen they are steely and ominously ever present. But when they later play the Doctor's keepers this subtly is lost and they become overtly grotesque. But none the less, the company do a good job of presenting of Webster's messy, murky play in such a small space. The production demonstrates the skill and ingenuity that has driven the company for so long. The choice of The Duchess of Malfi is a potent one. Not withstanding the sadness of such a situation, it makes for a most memorable last hurrah. Here's hoping they find a new home soon.

James Waygood

24 February 2012
Remote Goat
3 stars
John Webster's Jacobean sensationalism is given another airing in this version by Galleon Theatre Company in what we are told will be the last production at the Greenwich Playhouse. More about this concerning news later.

Director Bruce Jamieson who also plays an imposing Cardinal, has ensured the action speeds along. Unfortunately, whether by adaptation or delivery, this rapidity is achieved at the expense of the poetry. Webster's beauty of language is what makes this gruesome tale of cruelty at all palatable, but here , the writer's honey pen has been played down in favour of super-fast storytelling and a shorthand version of emotion. There is little room for intriguing ambiguities of character here.

Alice de Sousa as the recently widowed duchess of the title makes clear her desires to lowly servant Antonio with all the subtlety of those lionesses in the nature documentary who immediately come on heat after their cubs have been killed. Next thing we know, there is an instant wedding ceremony presided over by the maid who ties the pair together with a scarf. Similarly, when Julia, played by a slinky Tanya Winsor, takes time out from one of her S&M sessions with the Cardinal to embark on some serious flirting elsewhere, it is done in such an unrealistic manner that one could almost be watching a cartoon character practicing allure for comedy purposes. This is not to suggest that the actors are at fault. There is a unity of style running through this production to which they all subscribe and this gives a consistency and credibility which outweighs these reservations; though more than one woman in the audience still voiced discomfort with a misogynistic streak which they perceived went beyond Webster.

Alice de Sousa grasps the role of the Duchess with aplomb, presumably relishing what must be her last chance to play such a youthful part, though some might argue it is already too late.

Credit must go to fight director Ian McCracken who has managed to keep the risible at bay while so many stabbed bodies pile up.

Damian Quinn as Bosola has the most complex character, part observer, part villain. He rises to the challenge and imparts a contemporary, easy style to the narration. Robin Holden as jealous brother Ferdinand manages to maintain his dignity throughout, even when transformed into wolf-man. Darren Stamford as Antonio manages to convey sensitivity and believability as the steward who marries above himself. Emma Grace Arends is servant to the Duchess, a woman and the third female in this show. She has a lot to put up with.

The evening ended with a plea from the stage by de Sousa to lobby the MP and the council leader. This is the final production at the Greenwich Playhouse. At the end of this run, Galleon will lose their home permanently. With the Olympics looming, the landlords are seizing the chance for a quick buck and will convert the theatre into a doss-house for backpackers. As the Galleon Theatre Company vacates Greenwich Playhouse after 17 years as the resident company at the venue it established, it chooses The Duchess of Malfi as its final production.

Malcolm Eadie

23 February 2012
What's On Fringe
3 stars (4 stars by public on 26 Feb)

Alice de Sousa (The Duchess of Malfi) and Robin Holden (Duke Ferdinand)

Robert Gooch

Fans of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue will be familiar with the round of one song to the tune of another and would therefore have felt at home at this Greenwich Playhouse production. It was quite recognisably the Duchess of Malfi, but played as if the cast had been told that they were having tea at a vicarage. This type of revenge tragedy can easily fall into grotesque melodrama which is of course undesirable but alas, this went too far in the other direction.

Everything was neat and correct, the text (mostly) enunciated well, the design cohesive, the direction logical but it lacked any shred of passion. A polite, English examination of something nasty in the woodshed without frightening the horses. Part of the problem was the updating which was not rooted in time or place. The decision to dress the men as gangsters, complete with pointy shoes, and the women as molls was fine as far as it went, with a few odd quirks such as the Duchess wearing cream trousers to her first husband's funeral and then wearing black later on. It was also odd that her "ghost" wore a dress when she had been dressed conspicuously in trousers and heels throughout the rest of the action. Emma Grace Arends as her prim servant was the epitome of conservative, virginal neatness which provided a nice contrast with her sexual assault and eventual death. The Cardinal's red shirt and socks were witty and the wearing of Christian bling helped to emphasise the hypocrisy of the society, but so much more could have been done to assist it.

The men's characters were not differentiated clearly enough; Robin Holden's Ferdinand was far too young to be the Duchess' twin, although both performances were perfectly creditable if rather held back. Alice de Sousa's Duchess had dignity and gravitas but rarely dared to stray outside those restraints, sympathy only being possible for her due to a certain warmth. Her calm acceptance of her mental torture was totally lacking in horror, as she gave her supposed murdered lover's severed hand, neatly boxed and complete with ring barely a glance. Her throwaway comment that this was rather a nasty thing to do must have been the understatement of all time.

Darren Stamford's Antonio was a very likeable lover but could have played the class difference more strongly. We are given very little time to adjust to the Duchess summoning him to go over the accounts before she pounces on him. He seemed to take this for granted without a hint that this was a delightful surprise or even a continuation of the status quo.

Bruce Jamiesen's [sic] cardinal impressed by physical presence as much as performance, not least with the possession of a rich, bass voice. The big weakness amongst the performances was Tanya Winsor's Julia. She struggled with clumpy high heels and purveyed a bland, vague sexiness that came over as mildly tarty rather than totally licentious. As she tripped in wearing her S&M nun's outfit with a cute little wink, she could have been on a set of a Carry On film. She was not assisted by the director in her death. Neatly seating herself on a chair with a couple of coughs, there was no way that we could believe that she was being agonisingly and shockingly poisoned. Julia has one of the most chilling lines in English drama as she states "I go, I know not wither" [sic] . This should be a person who, in full cognisance of her dissolute life, is a practising Catholic who has had no time to make peace with her maker before a violent death and a very real belief in eternal hell. Instead it sounded more like "Bye now, nice knowing you".

It was right that the knife blades were retained, but in an age when stabbings in London are almost a daily occurrence, the anachronistic attempt at period daggers was unnecessary. It looked as if some of the characters had lifted letter openers on their way through an office. Likewise the puzzling wielding by Julia of a flintlock pistol, pretty though it was. Surely a neat little handbag job would have been more appropriate? By the time that everyone murders virtually everyone else at the end, it felt like a neat way of clearing the stage by playing fatal tag rather than Webster's moral conclusion of just desserts.

Perhaps this is a production that will warm up in the playing as it has the potential to be stunning if only everyone has the courage of their convictions.


29 February 2012
(no stars, generally positive)

Tanya Winsor (Julia) and
Bruce Jamieson (Cardinal)

Robert Gooch

The Duchess of Malfi marks the last production at Greenwich Playhouse and, appropriately (given the circumstances) tells a tale of ruthlessness running roughshod over those without the power to defend themselves.

400 years old now, John Webster's tragedy retains its shock value, featuring stabbings, implied rape and a strangling that manages to fill the stage with its execution. All this hatred is sparked by its opposite, love. Newly widowed, the Duchess (Alice de Sousa) marries gentle Antonio (Darren Stamford) a man with neither wealth nor title, but who cleaves to principles in an unprincipled world. Though their union is kept secret, the Duchess' brothers learn of their sister's decision and react with murderous madness. Bruce Jamieson is a swaggering, bullying moral vacuum as The Cardinal, and Robin Holden eventually gives way to the madness that was never far away, straitjacketed as Ferdinand.

With nobody more than three rows away from the depravity and the cast in modern dress, there's an immediacy to the action that tempts one to look away - we know that these are not the sort of men who issue empty threats. What keeps one's eyes on the stage is the beauty of Webster's language ('Ambition, madam, is a great man's madness, that is not kept in chains and close pent rooms, but in fair lightsome lodgings and is girt with the wild noise of prattling visitants which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.') and the characters who swirl around the dysfunctional family. Emma Grace Arends is feisty, loyal and ultimately utterly tragic as Cariola, the Duchess' young servant and Damian Quinn judges his role perfectly as Busola, the hand for hire, who learns that his cynicism cannot stand up to the example of those who are truly honourable.

As ever, the Greenwich Playhouse eschews the easy options and gives its clientele something not available in the West End, nor in the subsidised theatre nor, soon, even in Greenwich. I am not alone in wishing Alice and Bruce well in their search for a new home.

Gary Naylor

27 February 2012
The Guardian
3 stars
Greenwich Playhouse is a neighbourhood pub theatre that for more than 20 years has produced an eclectic mix of mostly classic plays, from Shakespeare to Ibsen. If you have been a regular member of the audience, then you will certainly have a pretty good grasp of British and European theatre from the 17th to the 20th century. But the theatre's lease is not being renewed by the pub landlords, and the Playhouse is looking for a new home in the borough. In the meantime, it makes its swansong in its current premises with a sturdy if not electrifying revival of Webster's glittering 17th-century revenge drama.

Bruce Jamieson's production begins with the Duke's funeral, which makes the Duchess's marriage to Antonio seem particularly swift and reckless, and plays the bloody drama out on an almost empty stage. Such plainness - and the intimacy of the venue - demands superlative acting, and it doesn't always get it in a production that offers moments of real grand-guignol horror, but which often seems earthbound in the face of Webster's gloriously baroque poetry. The odd mish-mash of musical styles is disconcerting, although I imagine it is intended to convey a timelessness in this modern-dress revival. A bunch of heavies are always lurking, and an undercurrent of violence stalks the court.

Alice de Sousa's Duchess has real dignity, but is too knowing and brittle to really win your sympathy, and Darren Stamford captures the initial uncertainty and growing confidence of Antonio, propelled from servant to lover. But it would all be a little dull without Damian Quinn's compelling Bosola, a man apparently fatally wounded by his own cynicism and then by the discovery - too late - that he may have a heart after all.

Lyn Gardner

Public comments

I saw this play yesterday (Sunday 26th Feb). I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was unfamiliar with the play and it took some time for the story and characters to come to life for me. But by the second act the whole play came to a glorious crescendo. What starts off as a rather prosaic story of simple greed reveals itself to be a searing Indictment on the church, the nature of corruption and family. Only real friendship is held as the true good in people.

In such a small theatre the audience is right beside the players. The visceral emotions of the play are very close all the time and the cast performed them beautifully and frighteningly. The scene where Cariola is dragged off to meet her fate is played with great intensity by Emma Grace Arends. Antonio is played very well by Darren Stamford and his character grows from being a meek servant to an equal of the Duchess deftly and gradually.

Overall a very enjoyable afternoon spent in one of the most attractive small theatres and its imminent demise is one we should be saddened by. May the company rise again in a new venue and continue such performances long into the future

Weaversrower, 27 February 2012
I agree with Weaversrower review. I think this production takes out the complete anger and madness that Webster' wanted and needs. It needs this barbaric treatment to show the true play. The men care nothing for the women of the piece. Every one of them is killed or abused in the original text. Great performances here from Alice De Sousa, Emma Grace Arends, Bruce Jamieson as a towering portrayal of evil, Robin Holden as a mad Ferdinand and Tanya Winsor a well appealing Julia.

fireball1, 28 February 2012

27 February 2012
Time Out
2 stars (5 stars by public on 2 Mar)
As their last show at the Greenwich Playhouse, 'The Duchess of Malfi' is a poignant swansong for producer/director team Alice de Sousa and Bruce Jamieson. But this self-indulgent production will frustrate and irritate everyone else.

In Webster's Jacobean drama, the Duchess chooses to marry her male secretary, Antonio. Marriage was power back then and her controlling brothers are not best pleased. De Sousa, who also plays the lead, is feisty, but Jamieson's bizarrely sadomasochistic production is clearly a smoke screen for something else.

Bubbling beneath John Webster's tale of incest and bloodshed is a more modern tale of woe; and it's not that of Malfi and her Antonio. A landlord is kicking the company out, and Galleon Theatre is taking no prisoners.

It's a funny way to go. Webster's play is full of passion and female fury but Jamieson has manhandled it into a vulgar stage show of presentational misogyny. Gimps act as manservants and there's too much pained Christian cumming. It is a muddled and wearisome end to a fringe institution.

Honour Bays

Public comments on 2 Mar 2012

At 2 hours the pace is well kept in this production and knowing the text well, the director has done a fine cut. The cast are very good indeed and unlike most productions you see of this great play even the supporting roles are well cast, vivid and memorable. The Cardinals men are a real bonus .Alice DeSousa, Bruce Jamieson and Darren Stamford are terrific. I did enjoy the turn that this production gave to Delio, played by Alexander Neal, which is the part I played many moons ago. They have made a role, usually neglected into a really intersting one. Damian Quinn's Bosola was a little one-dimensional but a good memorable Doctor (another usually forgotten role) was splendid in the hands of Barry Clarke. This is going to be the last performance until the company move to a new home, so I wish them luck and will hope to see them perform again soon. They will be better off outwith the awful pub downstairs anyway. Top notch for the theatre and play - bottom of the barrel for the pub.
Fraser Wingate
A gripping and excelently acted play, full of drama and realisically acted and frightening murder scenes. Robin Holden as the unhinged Ferdinand was outstanding. All the cast were brilliant. I'm going again!
Trust 'Time Out' and a woman to find themselves getting a bit squeemish. This is a good telling of a tale that is about bloody murder and hate. What are you supposed to do with Jacobean revenge plays. This is good stuff with fine performances. I bet when you get down to the Old Vic you will be hanging around kissing butt (Oh No We Dont Do Things Like That!!) Yeah, - I bet you do.
Kieron Dobbs

27 February 2012
What's On Stage
2 stars (3 stars by public on 29 Feb)

Tanya Wilson (Julia) and
Bruce Jamieson (Cardinal)

Robert Gooch

A production of The Duchess of Malfi was the first piece staged by Galleon Theatre as part of their residency at the Greenwich Playhouse, which began back in 1995. Now, with the theatre due to close in April, this established company are looking for a new home, but are bidding goodbye to their old one by ending as they began, with John Webster's gruesome tale of corruption and spite.

Swansongs are best done tastefully with artistic integrity, and although they are allowed to be indulgent, they should still leave an audience wanting more. This is evidently a no-holds barred adaptation of Malfi, updated with modern dress, a cinematic soundtrack, and twisted scenes of violence and sexuality. Unfortunately, this production goes too far in its attempts to shock, with the modern touches feeling more like a molestation of Webster's text.

The piece begins with serving-man Antonio (Darren Stamford) and his pal Delio (Alexander Neal) introducing the drama's main players. Their introductions are underscored by an unfathomable foghorn blast, heralding the entry of each individual with as much indelicacy as a soundtrack can muster. The Duchess of Malfi (Alice de Sousa) is recently widowed, and her brothers - a corrupt Cardinal (Bruce Jamieson) and the incestuous Duke Ferdinand (Robin Holden) - are adamant that she will not remarry. Unfortunately, she marries her servant Antonio, and all hell breaks loose as Bosola (Damian Quinn), gathers intelligence for the malevolent brothers.

What troubles me about this production is that everything that is wrong with it stems directly from the portrayals of the Duchess and the Cardinal, who are also the producer and director. Sadly, De Sousa lacks the charisma to make her Malfi memorable - and the casting of Holden as her twin brother seems rather wishful given their obvious age difference.

As for director Bruce Jamieson's playing of the Cardinal, it is a little disturbing just how many scandalous scenes he gets to partake in. There is a veritable smorgasboard of elements designed to shock and make the Machiavellian plot 'relevant' to a modern audience. We overhear the whipsnaps and moans of a BDSM session. The Cardinal wears tattoo sleeves and listens to heavy metal music to leave us in no doubt as to his shady character. And worst of all, Webster's disturbing scene where the Cardinal murders his mistress with a poisoned Bible is turned into an awkwardly sleazy episode where the poor girl must lick the shaft of a crucifix-encrusted tome held over Jamieson's crotch.

There are excellent performances from Bosola (Damian Quinn), Cariola (Emma Grace Arends), Julia (Tanya Winsor), and the Doctor (Barry Clarke). In particular, Quinn's Bosola is evilly seductive, soliloquising to the audience with all the relish of a pantomime villain. It is doubly frustrating, then, that a talented ensemble is let down by its main players and its overall direction.

The production's conclusion also ends somewhat bafflingly, with substantial liberties being taken with Webster's text. Somehow, Bosola manages to avoid death in the final scuffle, and the play's final lines are altered so that Alice de Sousa can come back on to remind us all that she is 'Duchess of Malfi still', despite being strangled to death. Perhaps Galleon Theatre are hoping that their ending will also be rewritten, and they will either be allowed to continue their work at Greenwich or find a suitable venue elsewhere.

It really is a huge shame that the Greenwich Playhouse must close its doors, denying future projects the chance to bloom. But this production is overripe. It is a bitter rendition of a bitter play, studded with overpowering star turns from some of the ensemble, leaving little to titillate the palate.

Miranda Fay Thomas

24 February 2012
One Stop Arts
1 star

Martin Foreman (Keeper),
Robin Holden (Duke Ferdinand)
and Alex Gerrard (Keeper)

photo: Robert Gooch

Galleon Theatre Company's adieu to the Greenwich Playhouse, courtesy of Olympic ambitions for the space above Beds and Bars, is the bloody and sexually charged The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster's classic Jacobean gore-fest. It is shame that so notable a company (and space) is going, but this production does little to justify their continued existence - an over-acted, sub-par mess of a production, trying very hard to shock but only managing to embarass.

It is perhaps telling that Galleon's swan-song is a play quite so steeped in blood: righteous anger at their unjust treatment may have been the driving force behind this show, as the result certainly reels emotionally from scene to scene. While this classic text is famously overwrought and ridiculous, most productions aim to modernise the piece into something more subtle, more interesting and more watchable - what Galleon have done here is the opposite. The plot is mostly intact: a Duchess, forbidden to marry by her brothers, does so in secret to the common-born Antonio and begets him a child. She is discovered by her brother Ferdinand's spy Bosola, who betrays her. Tormented by wax images of her dead husband and the cries of madmen (placed around her lodgings by her other brother, a Cardinal), she is finally murdered by Bosola, who, in his guilt, swears revenge - which he then exacts. Murdering Antonio in the meantime, by accident. Ah well, it's a Jacobean tragedy - everyone dies.

Well, at least, they should. Whether this is Webster's adherence to Jacobean norms or just good tragic writing, most characters are reprehensible and entirely deserve their comeuppance. Why, then, in Galleon's version of the piece, the tormented Bosola survives the final knife scuffle is entirely beyond me. It might be a reference to the fact that Damian Quinn (Bosola) is the only actor not mutilating the scenery by chewing it with such abandon, but that seems wholly too metatheatrical for a production so steeped in pathos. An overbearingly melodramatic soundtrack underscored most of the play, presumably in an effort to make it more filmic, but it only pushed the performers to greater mugging heights - at its worst, the piece resembled a Mexican soap opera more than a classic piece of English theatre. I admit, that's a very harsh description, but I'm really not exaggerating: if there was a prize for shocked/angry/scared/wistful staring into the middle distance, most of the leads would be vying for it.

A double shame, then, that every aspect of this production seems geared towards the gauche, only elevating the melodrama to almost unbearable levels. The decision to modernise the setting is pointless - at first, changing the noble family to a cartel of gangsters seems plausible, but it's quickly lost in the small details. The worst offended here is the Cardinal - a corrupt man of the cloth, it's a killer part, but Bruce Jamieson is dressed to look like the worst stereotype of a criminal kingpin - fake tattoos and tattoo sleeves included - which doesn't make a blind bit of sense. This, combined with Igor-like servants and a Julia (his mistress), who isn't above a bit of S&M-play in a nun's habit and a little black dress, combined into an (forgive the pun) unholy mess. Jamieson has incredible presence, but was also prone to the over-acting bug.

It is perhaps telling that the moments of shock and horror throughout the piece were punctuated with sniggers from the audience - nothing seemed to have any semblance of meaning and certainly no character generated much empathy, bar Quinn's Bosola, who managed to ignore his co-stars and deliver a generally solid performance in an excellent part. There are just so many moments that don't work: the tense opening scene constantly split by a bizarre foghorn, which I could never really fathom; the Duchess' secret marriage being conducted by her maid (in a modern setting, how on earth does that constitute marriage?); Ferdinand's "lycanthrophia" explained by a blood-spattered doctor when Ferdinand isn't even wounded; the echo that sounds like the Duchess' voice being delivered by de Sousa wafting around the space like a particularly solid ghost...

As stated above, most productions of The Duchess of Malfi try and find a truth to the brutality by breaking it down into very primal human emotions - Bosola's cruelty and remorse, the Duchess' fear and pain, Ferdinand's pride and lust - but none of that subtlety had any place in this production. A terrible mess, and a sad ending to an era for Galleon Theatre - I do wish them luck in finding a new venue, but hope this is not a taste of things to come. Chris Hislop

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