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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Joanna Lumley has now leapt into the Green Party fray after her admirable win for the Gurkhas. I wish that this formidable opponent would also bring onto the agenda another much smaller, though clearly still important, issue in her repertoire. Lumley is a patron of The Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell and surely the woman who charmed a dour Prime Minister can raise the unjustly low profile of this imaginative and daring venue.
Along with The Camden People’s Theatre (whose new show Sprint: adventurous adventures in theatre could be used to describe both of these spaces’ programming choices) The Blue Elephant Theatre is dedicated to a programme of work which crosses art forms in a mixture of performance art, devised pieces, classical texts, dance and experimental theatre. Bold choices for two such small players. But where these choices seem to pay off for The Camden People’s Theatre, its specificity raising it’s profile, The Blue Elephant Theatre is a much lesser known animal. This seems a real pity because although it is quite hard to get to (Camden is very central – even in the theatre it’s always location, location, location) the work put on there is always unique, questioning and innovative.
I have seen an intriguing production of The Duchess of Malfi, a modernist performance art revue and am looking forward to the Swedish cabaret I am going to see next Wednesday. Now although each of the pieces that I have seen have been flawed, the interest ignited from seeing them drives me to see their newest piece (which, by the way, has had a very credible review in Time Out). Along with their dance programme and young people’s theatre/community projects this is clearly a varied assortment of work and as the theatre world wakes up to the potential of the cross pollination of artistic forms The Blue Elephant Theatre is just the space to lead the charge.
But first we must all find the elephant, and it is honestly well worth the hunt.