The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, Directed by Beth Burns for The Hidden Room, York Rite Masonic Hall, Austin TX, Sept 27 – Oct 20, 2019, reviewed on October 20, 2019 (www.hiddenroomtheatre.com).
Reviewed by James Loehlin, University of Texas
The Duchess of Malfi extends the Hidden Room Theatre’s project of marshalling historical performance techniques for potent contemporary theatre. Beth Burns’s tense, agile production incorporates period movement, costume, and lighting effects, while delivering a lucid, accessible version of one of the greatest tragedies of the Renaissance. The production, which will return in May 2020 and then tour to the UK, represents a high-water mark in Hidden Room’s ongoing exploration of period performance.
The goal of the company is not a systematic, archaeological use of “original practices,” but the creation of what Burns calls a theatrical time machine, working back historically through what evidence we can find and trying to connect the dots through the creative work of the company. Past projects have included a barnstorming Richard III using John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook (in the Cibber version) and a production of Nahum Tate’s King Lear emphasizing historical gesture and Restoration costuming. Other productions have synthesized period work with more modern aesthetics, as in a seventies glam-rock Henry IV and an edgy, #MeToo-inflected version of Behn’s The Rover with eighties teen-film touches.
The Duchess of Malfi is Hidden Room’s first fully period-set Renaissance production in many years, perhaps since their celebrated all-male Taming of the Shrew. Sumptuous costumes by Jenny McNee, of the American Shakespeare Center, perfectly capture the elegant extravagance and bejeweled menace of Webster’s Jacobean world.
Like most of the company’s previous productions, The Duchess of Malfi is performed ‘in a Hidden Room somewhere within the York Rite Masonic Hall’. A large rectangular room with the audience on two sides, the space works well for the ceremonial progresses and split-stage, presentational moments in the play. It is slightly less effective for moments of hushed intimacy or claustrophobic imprisonment, but on the whole Burns’s staging overcomes these challenges. Some of the particularities of the space enhance the production: the cruciform pattern on the flooring suggests a cathedral nave and transept, and a hidden wall panel serves for surprise entrances.
One of the striking features of the production is its emphasis on lighting, an element of undeniable importance in The Duchess of Malfi, but one that has not featured heavily in past Hidden Room productions. While the whole space is lit with ceiling fixtures that cast a warm, dim glow over actors and audience (as in past Hidden Room plays), these are occasionally dimmed or turned off altogether, and are supplemented with candelabra and wall sconces using simulated candle flame. The variety of lighting effects has startling power in certain key scenes of the play, most notably when the sinister Duke Ferdinand plays a ghastly psychological trick on his sister the Duchess by giving her a dead hand to kiss, and then using waxwork figures to convince her that her husband and children have been murdered. Burns pulls out all the stops on this scene, and it proves harrowing and effective despite some of the challenges of the space.
The company’s continued work with historical gesture is less strenuously foregrounded in this production than in some past work, but it has two different kinds of payoffs. One is the consistency of movement and gesture work across the company, which creates a Renaissance courtly world without ever seeming distracting or overplayed. The other kind of payoff comes in individual moments where gestures introduce a layer of psychological detail or social commentary, often to do with the power relationships between characters. When the widowed Duchess woos her steward Antonio, for instance, the expressiveness of her downward-pointing gesture, in instructing him to kneel, reminds us that for all the love that eventually flourishes between these two characters, this is essentially a scene of sexual harassment between employer and employee.
The Duchess/Antonio relationship feels ill-fated from the beginning, though the actors evince sympathy for these doomed characters. Brock England’s nervous, earnest Antonio seems constantly aware of the dangers of his position; and while Liz Beckham’s dignified Duchess shows pluck and wit in dealing with her brothers, she doesn’t seem destined for any but a tragic conclusion. Her strongest scenes, appropriately, are those in which she faces her fate with steely resolve and courage, seconded ably by Jill Swanson as a more-than-usually serious Cariola.
There are a number of fine performances by the excellent cast. Ryan Crowder is a fierce Duke Ferdinand, whose incestuous longings for his sister are expressed in a sudden, impulsive attempted kiss. Robert Matney is a gleefully dissolute but pompous Cardinal, whose mistress Julia is given a scene-stealing performance by Amber Quick. But the presiding figure of this production is Judd Farris’s brooding Bosola. Farris expertly charts the character’s evolution from snarky malcontent to eager intelligencer, and then, through Webster’s astonishing moral imagination, to conflicted executioner and fervent revenger. Bosola can sometimes be a marginal presence in the play, an unpleasant observer, nastily commenting from the sidelines and doing occasional dirty work. Farris makes him a full-blooded hero, whose worst deeds actually enhance his stature in the corrupt world of the play, because he alone feels their full ethical weight. By the time Bosola realizes he has killed Antonio—the one man he wished to save—“In a mist, I know not how, / Such a mistake as I have often seen/ In a play”, the production has fully plumbed the play’s moral depths and conveyed its immense tragic power.