It’s a cause for celebration when London gets a new theatre, especially one that is devoted to the nation’s most famous playwright. But rather than make a near impossible choice from Shakespeare’s repertoire, the directors of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse have chosen to open with The Duchess of Malfi by his contemporary John Webster. Susan Chitty reports:
‘It’s a macabre tale, loosely based on reality, whereby the Duchess marries beneath her and thus enrages her two brothers who take their revenge, ultimately destroying her and themselves. What begins as a love story ends in torture and death and the candle lit playhouse is perfect for this high class Jacobean horror movie.
‘As a first time visitor I was struck by the intimacy of the theatre – only 340 seats and all of them wooden benches as was traditional in Shakespeare’s day. At that time many performances were not held in theatres at all, but in the great halls of noblemen’s houses, hence seating was makeshift and temporary.
‘Modern audiences may find all this authenticity a bit painful. Though the theatre looked perfect, the wooden seats were like sitting on a saw-horse as there is nothing to lean back against. At half time I had to be moved upstairs for some back support, the seats up there cost an extra ten pounds but it was worth every penny.
‘The play was first performed privately at Blackfriars Theatre in 1612-13 , and the Sam Wanamaker playhouse provides a similar atmosphere, with a stage surrounded by oak-wood panels and right amongst the audience so that you are never more than a few feet from the action. The atmospheric candle lighting is achieved by huge chandeliers of candles which rise and fall at the appropriate moments to leave the stage either lit or in darkness.
‘The other joy of the evening lies in one’s proximity to Ferdinand, the twin brother of the duchess, played by David Dawson. He is wonderfully fiendish, witty, gritty and controlled even during his violent outbursts. Harbouring an incestuous love for his widowed sister, he tries but fails to prevent her from secretly marrying the lowly courtier Antonio. The lank-haired Ferdinand gradually loses his sanity and plots to have her killed, but not before torturing her with the severed hand of her husband.
‘This scene should be one of the highlights of the play, where she is given her husband’s severed hand to find though it wears his ring, it is as cold as clay. However it was in reality a huge disappointment. Although we hear the Duchess’s screams and see her horror as the lights come up, of the hand itself there is no sign!
‘The Duchess herself is also something of a disappointment. Former bond girl Gemma Arterton is undoubtedly beautiful and says all her lines very nicely but without any real passion, and there are no shortage of dramatic opportunities. Sadly she displays little of the tenderness and warmth which, besides her witty lines and clever repartee, are meant to be part of her charm.
‘The fact that so much of my evening was spent thinking about my backside suggests that there have been more thrilling renditions of the play but at least it gave me plenty of time to ponder the benefits of the Sam Wanamaker playhouse where we can now watch all year round the kind of quality productions we have come to enjoy during the summer at The Globe where a standing ticket costs just £5. True to the Globe’s tradition Sam Wanamaker Playhouse tickets start at £10. With any luck you should have enough leftover to invest in a very decent cushion.
Main Photo by Mark Douet: David Dawson as Ferdinand with Gemma Arterton as The Duchess of Malfi