The Duchess of Malfi is a horror play that fully embraces its genre, involving a mad man, a severed hand, a poisoned bible, and a brilliant Quentin Tarantino parody.
The Manchester School of Theatre’s final year production is based on the Jacobean revenge tragedy of the same name, written by John Webster. The play showcases a luxurious world of the ultra-rich that swiftly unravels into a nightmarish, chaotic hellscape because of the hatred of a cruel Cardinal and a deranged Duke towards their magnificent sister, the Duchess.
All of the actors gave amazing performances; they were engaging and interesting to watch. The tragedy boasts a cast of complex and diverse characters, who are very difficult to play, but not only did the actors execute their source material flawlessly, they also skilfully added something new to the characters, making them more compelling and special.
To mention a few examples, Andrew Dawson portrayed the cliché of the evil preacher as a charming and psychopathic monster who causes pain to everyone around him. He did this with a calm disregard that was chilling to watch. Matt Pettifor played the less intelligent jock brother, who slowly loses his sanity and admits to the chaos of his own creation. He performed the role of the mad brother convincingly, and also showed brief moments of clarity, making the audience question their own definition of insanity. Though killed off quite quickly, Hannah Brownlie’s Duchess fitted the role of the independent female hero perfectly. She actively fought for her own freedom, and acted as a foil for her cruel brothers through her own cunning.
Sound was very well used for the production. A man played both acoustic and electric guitar live, and there were also pre-recorded music and sound effects. These cleverly contributed to set the horrifying mood. The music was extravagantly beautiful in the beginning and quickly escalated to dark and tragic. Speakers were mounted on all sides of the theatre, and these gave off spine chilling background noise that seemingly came from nowhere and everywhere. However, there were a few moments when the microphone of an actor was not switched off when they were not talking, causing a barely audible static background noise. This was only a minor defect though and it did not inhibit the audience’s enjoyment of the play.
The props were the only negative element of the otherwise amazing production. Though they were convincing, well-made and established the correct mood for the scene, they always felt superfluous. It was obvious that the set designers tried hard to make every scene look realistic, because every setting in the play was represented by real, large and often heavy pieces of furniture and many small bits and bobs scattered untidily across the stage. Out of all the props on stage, only a very few were actually used by the actors and contributed to the development of the plot. Most were just there for no real reason.
One prop in particular served as the real arch-villain of the entire play. A giant, luxuriously decorative rug was placed on the floor to signify the main character’s wealth and opulence. Every time an actor attempted to dramatically march across the stage, they were deterred by tripping on the beautiful but inconvenient carpet. This happened at least five times before I stopped counting. Though the actors were very professional and disguised it well, it was distracting to the brilliant performance.
The actors were talented enough that they did not need props to support them, and the best scenes were the ones with the simplest stage. Both the brilliant parody of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (need I say more?), and the final climactic scene where the cruel and the mad finally receive reckoning for their sins, were performed with very few props.
This horror-play possesses many frightening scenes and is not for the faint of heart. Trigger warnings include, but are not limited to; sexual assault, flashing lights, vomit, and plenty of violence and blood. It possesses a Games of Thrones’ level of intensity, gritty realism, political intrigue, and, most importantly, compelling characters played by amazing actors.
The Duchess of Malfi ran at the HOME Theatre from 21st to 23rd November.