by Sam PritchardThe Duchess of Malfi is a play about unpleasant people. This is something that could quite easily be upstaged by the sheer melodrama of its ending; the merit of Titus Halder’s production is that it doesn’t allow this to happen. He reads Webster’s play as a thrilling character piece, a struggle for power fought out in small chambers with unsettling intimacy. Work on this show has been nourished by bucket loads of creative enthusiasm and a real understanding of the play. It is a shame that all its elements do not quite coalesce.When the widowed Duchess remarries against the wishes of her brothers, she subjects herself to a catalogue of indignities and persecution. The violation of her private life also deprives her of any political status. Calder’s staging is expert at manipulating the spaces of the court. We move between cabals in public places and tense encounters behind closed doors. The chorus work, lead by Mwenya Kawesha, is well executed and crucial in creating such effects.Despite these subtle successes, there is really one central reason to pay your money at the Playhouse. Most of the crap written about the quality of acting in Oxford is just that, a product of earnest self-congratulation. Sian Robins-Grace as the Duchess is genuinely something worth fussing about. She is grippingly natural and quietly affecting throughout her character’s humiliation. This is a woman who moves from a sense of poise and grace to a puling heap at the hands of her masculine tormentors. Robins-Grace creates her with such success that it seems almost inappropriate, certainly at times uncomfortable, for an audience to be witness to such a personal collapse.Those tormentors are a mixed bag. The casting of Brian McMahon damages the central dynamic between the Duchess and her brother Ferdinand. His performance is tight and twitchy to a comic degree. Never sinister, he is almost always irritating. It takes Jack Chedburn a few simple strokes to play his brother, the Cardinal, with impressive precision. He is a man who masks cruelty with modesty. Carelessly unkind in private, he is a model of false piety in public.Owen Findley, as the brothers’ agent Bosola, is working harder than anyone else on stage. This is not necessarily a good thing. He mixes wonderfully light moments and a humorous touch with occasions when it seems as though he might spontaneously combust with effort. I was also slightly nonplussed by his habit of acting almost entirely while hovering on his tiptoes. Tom Wilkinson completes the central quintet of characters as the Duchess’ new husband Antonio. He does just the right amount to convince us that he is a decent man in a disgusting world. His tentative love scenes with Robins-Grace make for the most impressive pairing in this production.A sense of flare or ignition was really what I missed in this show. A really modern production might achieve more as a shorter and more pernicious blast of bloodletting. Halder has engendered a real consistency of pace and a good standard of verse-speaking. Watching a kind of open rehearsal during the preview, I was impressed by his ideas and meticulousness as a director. I can’t entirely wax lyrical, because watching this production I was given great expectations that weren’t quite met.It is highly unlikely that there is anything more deserving of an audience next week than the central performance in this play. The production is an achievement, but its Duchess is phenomenal.
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