A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to see ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse for its 10th anniversary season in London. The Jacobean revenge tragedy, written by John Webster in 1612-13, explores the downfall of our main character the Duchess, at the hands of her own brothers, Ferdinand, and the Cardinal. The production highlights huge hypocrisy found within the state and church of the day, also conveying a surprisingly progressive feminist standing on the unjust power held over women, especially for a writer of the medieval period. This production takes a break from emphasising the horrific events of the play, in great favour for the raw, tragic journeys of each character.

Located right next to the Globe, the theatre brings to life the features of a real playhouse of the Jacobean period, giving the audience a chance to fully immerse ourselves into the time and history of the play. Lit entirely by candlelight, this rendition of the play uses every inch of the stage, including an interesting use of projections as subtitles for the speech of each character, leading up to an impactful climax of chaos reflecting the madness introduced near to the end. The simplistic setting of the stage adds also to the sense of pure authenticity to the play, helping to strip it right back to focus purely on the emotional trials and tribulations of every character.

Actors also took fantastic approaches to their roles, Francesca Mills as the Duchess highlighting her great scope as the lead, from cheeky and tender love with her Antonio to fierce anger and grief for her beloved’s death. Actor Oliver Johnstone also gave a striking performance as Ferdinand, conveying a sincerity to his character’s feelings and actions throughout.

However, even with the passionate acting and interesting setting, I did find the emphasis on the comedic tone in the last scene of the tragedy slightly out of place, considering the impact this scene should have on the audience watching. The corruption and evil of both brothers is given a slightly sympathetic outlook by changing some of the lines to become more light-hearted, taking the audience out of the severe tragic element of this scene. In my opinion, this also made the last line from the Duchess’ daughter lose some weight and detract from the hope offered by her here, leaving the audience feeling slightly confused on how to feel about each character.

Overall, I found this rendition of ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ very compelling, however did feel that the use of modern phrases and a sense of comedy in the writing, especially within the final tragic scene, a little distracting in times it was perhaps not necessary.