Review: Duchess of Malfi, Almeida Theatre

PUBLISHED: 10:47 17 December 2019 | UPDATED: 10:47 17 December 2019

The Duchess of Malfi at Almeida Theatre. Picture: Marc Brenner.

The Duchess of Malfi at Almeida Theatre. Picture: Marc Brenner.


Rebecca Frecknall’s updated minimalist revenge tragedy has buckets of blood and a memorable performance by Lydia Wilson.

The Duchess of Malfi at Almeida Theatre. Picture: Marc Brenner.The Duchess of Malfi at Almeida Theatre. Picture: Marc Brenner.

John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is a classic Jacobean "revenge tragedy". In lay-terms that means a blood-fest or, on the silver screen, a splatter movie.

Whatever you call it, Rebecca Frecknall's updated production on a minimalist set is a stylish and magnificently acted work.

Set in Italy, the plot centres round a young, aristocratic widow Giovanna (Lydia Wilson).

Her two brothers do not want her to remarry and so they hire a wily Mr. Fixit (Bosola, played by the nuanced Leo Bill) to spy on her.

Too late! She has already fallen in love with her steward Antonio (the warm, measured Khalid Abdalla), secretly marries him and bears his child.

So far, it's a rather sweet girl-meets-boy who fall in love against the odds. But post interval, the mood shifts, and not in a good way.

Brother Ferdinand orders The Duchess and her (now three) children to be killed. There follows a scene that seems to last for about fifteen minutes involving her strangulation by Bosola. It is chilling and unsettling in its cold bloodedness and forensic detail.

After this, the gloves come off and there's a method of despatch to suit all tastes as characters get their comeuppances - shooting, stabbing, poisoning, choking - take your pick!

Frecknall choreographs the final act's bloodletting in slow motion: whether this Peckinpahesque scene brings anything to an otherwise fabulous production may depend on individual audience members. Perhaps out of a sense of self preservation, I found myself giggling as another spurt of blood made more work for the wardrobe team.

But it is Wilson who astounds. In complete control of her character she is a super intelligent, self aware, sexually assured young woman determined to be in charge of her destiny, her body and her children. The real tragedy is how impossible that is.

Rating: 4/5.

Continues until January 25. More details and tickets here.

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