I am very certain, never grew in my mother's milk. My
estate is sunk below the degree of fear: Where
were these penitent fountains, while she was living?” This line, given by
Bosola, is an interesting summation of the tragic
material surrounding John Webster’s “The
Duchess of Malfi.” Death, deceit, secret love,
guilt, madness and treason are the common themes
that run through the Babcock Theatre’s production
of the nearly three-hour, five-act tragedy.
It is one thing to see a grandiose Renaissance tragedy
with massive set pieces on a massive stage. It is
an entirely new creature when such productions are
put into the claustrophobic closed quarters of the
Babcock stage, converted into a thrust stage with
seating on three sides of the stage for this performance.
What was once a distant story from a distant land
becomes a local story that threatens to encroach
upon your personal space.
Directed by Sarah Shippobotham, The “Duchess
of Malfi” is a resurrection of the tragedy.
Regular attendees of the local theater rarely view
such antiquated plays as the Jacobian “Duchess.” Rather,
summer festivals are the usual bringers of older
classics. Yet the edge usually found in the modern
theater productions is not entirely lost in “Duchess.”
A stark stage with minimal lighting and quasi-Elizabethan
costuming provides no distraction from the plot and
acting. Trimming down the stage antics provides a
certain exposure of the actors. The audience is forced
to look at the circumstances and situations throughout
the play in a near-first-person perspective.
Given the intimate space, minimalistic set and lighting
design, it was all up to the actors to perform a
show that drew in the audience. Unfortunately, it
took the first three acts before the show grew compelling.
It is difficult at times to wade through the language,
especially when several of the actors’ enunciation
was not that precise. For example, Delio (Benjamin
Green) often slurred together lines, while Castruccio
(Steve Unwin) maimed his lines with an interesting
brogue that was caught somewhere between Scotland
and Long Island. I still wonder why actors feel like
they have to concoct a foreign accent in old plays.
Despite the previously mentioned shortcomings, the
performances by principal characters carried the
show. Cheryl Nichols, in the title role for half
the performances, including tonight’s, for
example, conjured a genuine character who progressed
slowly through a wide range of emotions. Whether
she was happy or sad, sane or mad, forgiving or bitter,
Nichols did not phone it in. Ferdinand’s (Chris
Johnston) gradual descent into writhing madness can
be likened to the madness of Shakespeare’s
Hamlet. Johnston allowed the audience to slowly despise
him more and more, while he drove himself to madness.
The shades of right and wrong were often blurred
in his character. Johnston played Ferdinand as an
actual human being, not a demonized caricature. Whit
Hertford’s portrayal of the ultimate anti-hero,
Bosola, stood out among all of the principal performances.
Hertford passionately portrayed the criminal whose
blackened heart is finally struck with grief and
sorrow, without guile. The anti-hero of Bosola is
the moralist in the play—a moralist who trudged
through all sorts of debauchery and death to teach
the audience a lesson.
“The Duchess of Malfi” reinforces what
T.S. Eliot said of Webster: “[He] was much possessed
by death and saw the skull beneath the skin.” The
Babcock’s production definitely brings this obsession
into the limelight. You just have to sit through three
hours to see its fruition.