The Duchess of Malfi: Blood and brotherly love

David Phillipps and Amanda Dales in The Duchess of Malfi, Photography by Sam Taylor

David Phillipps and Amanda Dales in The Duchess of Malfi, Photography by Sam Taylor

An almost empty stage is the setting for the iconic revenge tragedy of The Duchess of Malfi. A couple of black boxes, a soundscape and some eerie coloured lights are all the aid the actors have in bringing this piece to life, and they do so well.

York Settlement Community Players provide the cast under the direction of Sam Taylor, and the intimate setting of York Theatre Royal’s Studio is the perfect place to perform the piece, making the brutality uncomfortably intimate. The actors have nowhere to hide with the audience almost face-to-face with them, and this quality works brilliantly, bringing the audience into the heart of the court of Malfi and the Duchess’ bloody downfall.

One of the biggest challenges to any production of a historical play is ensuring that the language is understandable and engaging, and Taylor has definitely achieved this. The cast clearly know the play, understand the language and use it effectively. The pared-down text sits alongside Helen Taylor’s modern costumes, which give a slick, updated feel to the play, reminiscent of a thriller film.

The cast is excellent. Amanda Dales gives the titular role of the Duchess a power and grace even as her life begins to come apart; dignified until the last, and haunting in more ways than one. Harry Revell provides a masterful performance as her brother Ferdinand – at turns charming and cruel, then shedding clothes along with his sanity, he is an excellent villain. The supporting actors round out the cast nicely, and work together well, with some truly outstanding performances.

The one somewhat jarring element is the lighting, designed by Graham Sanderson, which changes from simple and naturalistic to blue, pink, red, and purple, flashing each time blood is spilt. Whilst this modern design works well for the most part, at some points it seems a little too abstract for an otherwise very straightforward, if updated, performance of the play. A scene in which a character dances with a corpse (no spoilers) also feels uncomfortable, though perhaps it is meant to.

There are also a couple of moments of fumbled knifeplay, all to easy to see in such a small space, but on the whole the production is a well-thought-out piece of theatre, and with a talented cast behind it, well worth seeing.

The show runs until Saturday 16th March, tickets available here.

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