The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker review: a bracing revival that finds humour in the bloody chaos

From left, Olivier Huband, Shazia Nicholls and Francesca Mills in The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Marc Brenner)
From left, Olivier Huband, Shazia Nicholls and Francesca Mills in The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Marc Brenner)

Many first-rate actresses have played John Webster’s tragic Jacobean heroine – destroyed by her mad brothers for marrying her steward – and last night Francesca Mills joined their ranks.

She’s a piercing, strong-willed Duchess in a bracing revival by Rachel Bagshaw that brings out Webster’s savage poetry and bleak world vision.

It marks 10 years of the indoor, candlelit Sam Wanamaker playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, and makes you wish this organisation staged more works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and successors, which was part of its original mission.

This play feels transgressive and oddly modern. The giddily illicit passion between the Duchess and Olivier Huband’s soft-spoken Antonio is irresistible. Her brothers, a cardinal and a duke, react with a rage that borders on incestuous obsession.

You don’t have to look too far in any direction today to find comparable examples of women attacked by men for asserting themselves. The amorality of Webster’s universe is epitomised by the malcontent Bosola (Arthur Hughes, pitch-perfect), who commits atrocities despite twitches of conscience.

The grisliest moments in the story take place in darkness, so it’s a perfect fit for this crepuscular space. Bagshaw, who took over the Unicorn Theatre last year, deploys stylish, semi-modern costumes, a dissonant jazz score, and “creative captioning” – surtitles that take the form of concrete poetry.

 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

When the Duchess’s twin Ferdinand is deranged by his persecution of her, his dialogue comes back to haunt him. A word-cloud of abusive contemporary phrases, when the Duchess is imprisoned among madmen, works better than the puny and quickly abandoned introduction of references to Botox and “f**king” in the first half.

Mills, previously so good in comic roles at the Globe, here shows herself a dramatic actress of great command and sensitivity. She has achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, though this is irrelevant to her characterisation and her terrific performance.

Hughes, the first disabled actor to play Richard III for the RSC, has radial dysplasia – a shortened right forearm – which his Bosola and other characters react to. I only mention this because the casting of two fine actors in a way that’s still rare enough to seem bold has been overshadowed by complaints about the Globe’s artistic director Michelle Terry (who is non-disabled) taking on Richard III later in the season.

Oliver Johnstone’s Ferdinand is creepily impressive, Jamie Ballard’s cardinal too strident, and David Burnett’s Malateste surprisingly amusing, breaking into a daft song to woo the Duchess, and whipping the price tag off a bouquet of supermarket flowers at the last minute.

Bagshaw’s atmospheric production also brings out the humour amid the bloody chaos of Webster’s world. This is a cracking piece of work.

Sam Wanamaker’s Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, in rep to April 14, book tickets here