The Duchess of Malfi

AKTC The Duchess of Malfi photo by Daniel Rabin PhotographyYou’d be forgiven for thinking John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was a Grand Guignol play rather than a Jacobean revenge tragedy. Reading the plot of Webster’s Renaissance classic is like entering a chamber of horrors; staged infanticide, haunted Abbeys, a man who steals limbs from graves and a woman poisoned by a Bible.

It’s revenge tragedy by way of Hammer Horror, so it’s unsurprising that Arrant Knaves’ newest staging at Meat Market has sought to draw out the show’s already substantial horrors with a ‘gothic horror twist’ on the script. The problem is that its idea of what this ‘twist’ might look like feels frustratingly underdeveloped.

Things start off well enough. Treading the cobblestone path that leads into Meat Market’s aptly named ‘Cobblestone Pavilion’ feels like being transported to the London of Jack the Ripper, or Sweeney Todd. There are shadowy corners and towering black curtains; footsteps echo ominously.

In the theatre, Harry Gill’s Set Design continues the Gothic theme with four towering square frames large enough to double as doorways, casting sharp shadows across the stage beneath Sidney Younger’s perfectly stark and macabre lighting.

We meet our young Duchess (Christina Costigan) leading a funeral procession underscored by Chopin’s Funeral Dirge. Her brothers, Duke Ferdinand (Justin Harris-Parslow) and The Cardinal (Bruce Langdon) are biting at her heels – which is ultimately where they’ll spend the rest of the show. The Duchess of Malfi is a story of revenge.

Forbidden to remarry, The Duchess begins a secret relationship with her humble steward, Antonio (Christien Dariol). Both brothers, worried the relationship will sully their inheritance, try to derail the pairing.

In Act I, their tactics are subtle; resembling the courtly espionage you’d see in The Crown. But by Act II we’re in a full-blown Gothic melodrama as The Duchess – having been tortured and suffocated for her forbidden marriage – reaps a bloody revenge on her murderous siblings from beyond the grave.

There is a certain absurd charm to Webster’s melodramatic script that this production often leans into. Howling wolves underscore scene transitions, sheer spotlights cast ghost-faced cast members in shadow, and the ensemble cast perform with comically exaggerated gestures.

But there is little cohesive vision to make these choices seem intentional. Costigan is an enigmatic Duchess, amicable and fiery, but her naturalistic delivery and poise stands out against the schmaltzy performances that surround her.

When ‘mad folk’ in rubber skulls and red-pajama-like onesies taunt her as she sits confined by long white sheets staring off into the middle-distance dramatically, the show seems to accidentally stumble into the ridiculous campness of a B-grade horror. It’s fun, but rarely on purpose.

As The Cardinal, Langdon is best attuned to the production’s camp undertones, crooning like Vincent Price in a blood-red cassock that would be at home in Eyes Wide Shut. Tom Bradley lends a necessary gravitas and authoritative baritone to Bosola, but when he dies at the hand of a rubber dagger that bounces around comically on the stage, he becomes a victim of the show’s unintentional camp style rather than its author.

Harris-Parslow shines as the bratty Duke in Act I and, donning a discount-shop Woolf head in Act II, as his insane counterpart. Overall, the ensemble cast’s many stiff and overly exaggerated performances compromise moments of real tragedy, with an exception in Yvonne Martin’s scene-stealing performance as Delio.

Were this production more specific in the style of ‘gothic horror’ it intended, it may have found something new to offer audiences who so rarely get to see Webster’s rich script staged in Melbourne.

But as we creep to the show’s tragic end, and more rote horror orchestrations derail scene-after-scene with their overly loud and tinny-sounding design, the show’s horrifying tragedy turns into a farcical comedy that is ironically neither funny nor terrifying.

The Duchess of Malfi
Meat Market (Cobblestone Pavilion), 3 Blackwood Street, North Melbourne
Performance: Sunday 18 February 2024
Season continues to 24 February 2024
Information and Bookings:

Image: Marisa Warrington, Christina Costigan, Sophie Graham and Flynn Davis in The Duchess of Malfi – photo by Daniel Rabin Photography

Review: Guy Webster