Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ✭✭✭✭

Standing in the foyer of Shakespeare’s Globe waiting to enter their new indoor theatre, there is a genuine feeling of anticipation. Punters avidly read their programme notes, detailing the planning and construction of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse: the chance discovery of John Webb’s 1660 blueprints for an indoor theatre – the earliest drawings of their kind – in a book in an Oxford college Library; the painstaking research; the exacting sourcing of materials; the thought that went into each detail, down to the exact diameter of the beeswax candles that fill this unique space. The atmosphere, unlike the lighting, is electric.

This exhilarating sense of discovery continues as we process into the intimate 340-seater room. The rich timber smell that permeates the space, the stunning painted ceiling, and the golden flickering light all distinguish it from its far larger alfresco sibling. Yet it retains the thrilling immediacy of that well-loved auditorium, while its daintier proportions allow for a greater subtlety and nuance in delivery. The two central performances – the radiant Gemma Arterton (the eponymous Duchess) and the charming Alex Waldmann (Antonio) – are truly touching in their pared-back simplicity, utterly convincing as two young people in love.

Their youth and innocence, however beautifully played, actually diminish the impact of the production. We pity them as their tragic fate plays out, yet feel fustrated by their naivety. They proceed to marriage seemingly unaware of the dangers involved, rather than knowingly choosing to risk these grave consequences for their passion. Thus they move from a position of power to one of passivity; leaving a space in the heart of the play where our active protagonists should be.
This central vacuum is swiftly filled by a dynamic duo of anti-heroes, the Duchess’s brothers. As Ferdinand, tormented by his incestuous passions, David Dawson gives an astonishing performance, terrifying in its raw and visceral agony. The audience, so painfully aware of the overwhelming strength of his feelings, understand – if not excuse – the extreme punishment he ultimately devises for the woman he is unable to have. In contrast, James Gardon as the gleefully malevolent Cardinal, reveals almost nothing, yet walks the tightrope between comedy and tragedy more skillfully than anyone else on stage, seducing us as he does so.

Despite some memorable moments – the infamous dead hand scene being a particularly delight – the imbalance here between the unengaging virtuous and the irresistible wicked prevents the play from being the glorious success that this wonderful new theatre deserves.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until 16th February 2014
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