Malfi

Mon 22nd – Sat 27th August 2011

reviews

Ellen Marsh

at 11:03 on 23rd Aug 2011

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As you enter the Bedlam theatre for Malfi, a live jazz band is playing, making clear immediately the film noir influences on this version of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. This band is the principal strength of this production; musical interludes cover many of the cuts in the script, making the streamlining of the play less jarring and keeping everything within its new setting. As the music is played live musicians can respond immediately to the action of the scene, without the problem so often caused by pre-recorded music – that of making scenes with varied tones monotonous.

The Offshoots actors retain their UK accents, which to me seems a good choice. Going too far into the film noir setting could easily have backfired – nothing ruins a good production like distractingly bad accents. All performers are strong but none stands out as exceptional. This is most definitely a production in which the ensemble is important, and all actors here work together extremely well.

The noir atmosphere is emphasised by consistently dark lighting, which really helps create the tone of the piece. However, some of the decisions regarding lighting struck me as rather odd. Lighting changes during scenes (and speeches) often went to full blackout before the new lights came up, which at first made me think something had gone wrong, but happened so frequently it must be deliberate. While those changes work on film, in the context of the theatre I found it quite jarring and it brought me out of the world of the play rather than into it.

Malfi is a very enjoyable and engaging version of Webster’s play. Audience members who know the play will probably be able to get more from it – they can sit back and enjoy the setting and production – though it is easy enough to follow for people with no knowledge of The Duchess of Malfi. This is a well-produced and acted production, and makes me very excited to see what the Offshoots have to offer at future festivals.

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Imogen O'Sullivan

at 09:28 on 24th Aug 2011

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This striking and original interpretation of Webster’s play evoked a cinematic quality reminiscent of the ‘film noir’ style of Sin City, with the black, white and red colour scheme of both the production and the marketing bringing a subtle and sensitive modern twist to an outdated script. The choice to set this production in a dingy caberet bar was inspired, allowing for the sinister underground dealings of Ferdinand and his followers to take on a tone of organised crime and family feuding that I’d be tempted to label entertainingly ‘Mafia-esque’.

The props and costume indicate an impressive attention to detail in this period setting, but the most effective atmospheric creation was the ‘Malfi House Band’. The husky vocals of Holly Francis created some moments of spine-tingling beauty and the talent and focus of the entire band was outstanding. The music heightened the mood perfectly without any trace of appearing to take away from the action and pauses were exceptionally well-timed and unassuming – truly a wonderful and unexpected addition to this piece.

Acting was strong across the board, with stand-out performances from Michael Cole as Ferdinand and Richard Moxon as The Cardinal. Cole exuded the sinister fury of an ambitious man who is failing to get his own way, powerfully frightening as he teeters on the brink of madness then a sorrowful, broken figure as he faces his mistakes. The incestuous lust that forms an integral part of his spiralling descent is aggressive and intimidating as he purrs into his sister’s ear, setting the audience on edge. Moxon has a wonderful vocal tone for this ‘film noir’ style and manages the sinister aggression and moral questioning sides of his character admirably. Joshua Coates’ Antonio initially struggled with some enunciation issues that made his lines hard to decipher, but as his passion takes over toward the end of the piece his performance strengthens in affective emotional depth.

With these powerful male presences on stage, Ellie Cootes has a lot to compete with, and, at times, her male counterparts do seem to overshadow her in volume and energy; her cold, collected Duchess is initially strong but as her world falls apart more extreme emotion is needed to raise her voice above a tremendous supporting cast. Hannah Mook’s Cariola deserves special mention for an honest and touching performance with moments of amiable humour that warms an audience to the plight of an otherwise seemingly inconsequential character.

The inclusion of a section of physical theatre was another original touch that was nearing brilliance, particularly in the visual excellence of the black mannequins in trench coats. However, as much as I wanted it to be perfect, it seemed more rehearsal may have benefitted the actors, as all it needed was each of them to throw themselves into the physicality whole-heartedly for it to have been a resounding flash of genius, as it was, it was clever but disappointing. Overall, the directorial interpretation of this script was exceptional; original and interesting, managing both to offer entertainment value and a new perspective on this Jacobean tale.

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