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The Duchess of Malfi

New Zealand Star-Times, 17 July 2005


The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster
Auckland Theatre Company
Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, until July 30
Reviewer:  Gilbert Wong

Fresh from the 1600s comes John Webster's Jacobean drama, a roiling, potent mix of internecine betrayal and violent death that judging from the bloodied corpses left strewn on the stage resembles nothing so much as a season finale of The Sopranos.

It's fresh because Jacobean drama is rarely seen, so for most of us, this was a new experience, a glimpse of events first depicted 400 years ago.  There's a nod to the period--madrigals introduce the action--but this production is deliberately timeless, accentuating the eternal truths about the corrupting influence of power and how without any moral compass we make our own hells.

Designer Tony Rabbit and director Colin McColl opt for a timeless space, a simple raised catwalk of a stage, the only furniture a chest, which serves multiple purposes, set on fine black sand.  At the rear two clear plastic drapes partially obscure the actors' entrances and exits, but like the emotions, everything is on show here.

The widowed duchess, a feisty, sensuous Sophia Hawthorne, takes a secret husband, her steward Antonio (Matt Wilson).  Her brothers Ferdinand (Benjamin Farry) and the cardinal (Cameron Rhodes) suspect her, and plant a spy, Bosola (Michael Hurst), in her household.

The story revolves around Bosola, a man in conflict with his own evil, and the duchess, a surprisingly modern woman who knows her own mind and needs.  When seducing Antonio she says, "Alas, what pleasure can two lovers find in sleep?"

Webster's dialogue is rich, ribald, and blackly humorous and offers wonderful parallels.  The duchess describes herself: "Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have passed through most jewellers' hands."  This is countered at the climax as a mad and dying Ferdinand declares:  "Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust."

Webster is well-served by a standout cast.  Rhodes is all chill cruelty, and if the odd line is missed, Farry's descent into insanity is heart-felt.

But ultimately it is the performances by Hurst, who wrings each word of meaning, and Sophia Hawthorne, who manages a sort of intelligent earthiness, that become stamped in memory and make this brave and smart production so wonderful.

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