Written for The Stage
Owen Horsley’s electric production of The Duchess of Malfi peels the skin off John Webster’s play to reveal the smiling skull beneath. Horsley performs a series of dissections in a sleek version that skates over 90 minutes and sees most of the subplots cut out.
The result is slightly disconcerting – narrative justifications are stretched so far across this slim outline that on occasion they are unrecognisable. But Horsley’s sophisticated mise en scene ensures that this story of persecution is clear in a rigorous interpretation that is as incisive as it is decisive. This sort of daring, intelligent work is what fringe theatre should be all about.
This empathic but expressionistic production leads from its heart and head as Horsley creates a piece of ‘total theatre’ with movement, sound, tableaux and text fusing together. Simon Anthony Wells’ simple design of six chairs, fizzing bare light bulbs and hanging meat hooks provides a baldly stylish background for this company to dive into Webster’s murky psyche. Helen Atkinson’s evocative sound gives voice to dark spirits with its eerie echoes and distortions.
In a committed cast Orlando James is particularly compelling as an impassioned and increasingly feral Ferdinand while Kelly Hotten is statuesque as the quietly charismatic Duchess.
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