Act One Drama Society – The Duchess of Malfi
Llanover Arts Centre
Saturday 25th February 2017
For those of you unacquainted with 17th century drama, this isn’t one of the more obscure Shakespeare plays. It isn’t even Marlowe, who hung out with Bill S.
Nah. This is Webster. Mr John Webster, who wrote mindbending plays (mainly tragedies) in the 1600s. This, The Duchess of Malfi, is considered his most famous work. And, after Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, it’s my favourite play of. all. time. (I loves a good revenge plot, me.)
The Duchess of Malfi is, without giving too much away, a total car crash of domestic violence, incest, murder, madness, stoicism, forbidden love, pride, corruption, oppression, lycanthropy…you name it, and it’s in there: the whole spectrum of human virtue and sin. (And animal sin, actually.)
Plenty of people regard student productions with a sort of sneer, but for someone who has attended a fair share of university society productions, I have to say that they can be excellent. Mostly, students aren’t afraid to chuck everything at a performance, and it’s inspiring to watch.
This play really is that kind of play; it’s exhausting to watch and exhausting to act. You feel winded the whole two-and-a-half hours. And this production really did just that.
For me, the set was perfect; a minimalist backdrop that didn’t distract or lure the eye away from the lurching, wrenching emotion writhing about onstage.
Llanover Arts Centre is an excellent space for this kind of theatre work, and I felt there was a greater opportunity for the atmosphere to really take hold than a traditional theatre might provide.
With so much space, there is always a risk that the production feels muted, paler than usual, as the audience has to fill in so many more blanks. Not so in this performance — while the musical interludes were a little disjointed, and the costumes a bit too Baz Luhrman-esque for my taste, the performances were superb.
The three central characters (The Duchess, and her two brothers: Ferdinand and the Cardinal) were excellently cast, with Poppy Parker in particular standing out as a fearless, enduring Duchess.
While I took a little longer to connect to Ferdinand in this production, it was reassuring to see that he grew into the character as the play wore on, totally commandeering it during his final scenes. The Cardinal was every bit the scumbag I expected. The supporting cast were also to be commended, especially Bosola, who played the perfect boomerang.
Few productions leave you reeling. Even fewer make you gasp.
Fewer still make you think, as this one did. Spot on, Act One.
P.S I would definitely encourage you to book tickets for Act One’s next production, Find Me. Do the thing: https://www.cardiffstudents.com/activities/society/actone/
They even took the opportunity to raise funds for Cardiff Women’s Aid, in a nod to the extreme and uncomfortable scenes of domestic violence that take place during the play. They’re good eggs.
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