Webster’s bloodbath made slightly bloodless

The Duchess of Malfi

By John Nathan, January 23, 2014
Gemma Arterton with Brendan O'Hea as Roderigo, a lord

Gemma Arterton with Brendan O'Hea as Roderigo, a lord

The inaugural production at Shakespeare’s Globe’s newest candlelit indoor venue is the big story here. That is not to say that former Bond girl Gemma Arterton is not eminently watchable in the tile role of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy. Lit by the softest of lighting, there is a serene beauty about her.

Yet it is the kind of beauty that remains inaccessible even in this intimate space, which seats 340. You have to wait for the curtain call for the mantle to crack. Here it happened when Arterton broke into giggles as the choreography of taking a bow with the rest of the cast descended into disarray. At last it was possible to feel empathy for the woman.

But when you consider that by this point we have seen her imprisoned and mercilessly persecuted; deceived into thinking that her children and their father have been murdered and exposed to the terrifying company and anguished cries of the seriously disturbed — and all because she dared defy her brothers’ order never to remarry after she became a widow — you would think empathy would have come rather easily.

Even the scene where she meets her end — potentially one of the hardest to watch in drama — is underpowered in Dominic Dromgoole’s production. The Duchess is a role that requires poise, which Arterton has in spades. But you also need a sense of suppressed fire and anguish. And while Alex Waldmann as her secret suitor Antonio is undoubtedly a charmer, you feel a woman with the bosomy sensuality of Arterton’s Duchess would be more likely to pat him on the head than defy her murderous brothers and secretly bear his children.

So you watch on, slightly mesmerised, mostly unmoved, appreciative of the beauty of the show’s star, and impressed also by the carpentry of the new venue. In other words, the play never fully takes hold. As for the building, the designers have apparently drawn some of their inspiration from the old Bush Theatre, which kept its audience on the edge of their seats by giving them just an edge to occupy.

Actually, the design here is authentically Jacobean. There’s a gallery for musicians and much of the audience peers down from vertiginous tiers on to the stage, which has the proportions of a postage stamp. Six candle chandeliers emit most of the enchanting glow. The rest is of the wattage is largely Arterton’s. Yet, for charisma, the production relies entirely on the Duchess’s evil twin Ferdinand, played with a reptilian feverishness by David Dawson, and James Garnon who, as the Duchess’s brother, brings a dastardly, James Mason-like quality to his Cardinal.

Relatively recently, Eve Best played the role at the National. Those who saw that production will not resist making comparisons. Best was physically much further away from the audience than Arterton, yet emotionally infinitely more accessible. And unlike Dromgoole’s version, the awful murder was like watching a terrible crime being committed. Or a light extinguished.

Last updated: 11:59am, January 23 2014