Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Are you out of your princely wits?”

Review the seat or review the play? Whilst I’d love to just focus on The Duchess of Malfi, the experience at the newly constructed Sam Wanamaker feels so inextricably entwined with the level of (dis)comfort that comes from the seating and exacerbated by ticket prices that are best described as hefty and take little real account of the relatively restricted view many of them offer. It’s all very well for critics to dismiss such concerns when they’re not having to compromise on sightlines due to cost but it all adds up to a very real part of one’s theatrical experience. 

So safe to say, I was hugely uncomfortable for large parts of the afternoon and bitter about the price I was paying for the privilege. But having been exhorted to go and see the play due to it being a decent piece of drama (and crucially far superior to Jamie Lloyd’s recent version which I loathed) I kept reminding myself that the tip was a good one. And it is impossible to deny that Dominic Dromgoole’s production is a strong one, well suited to the unique charms of this new theatrical space which is lit entirely by candles. 

The candlelight is used most effectively throughout this darkest of Jacobean dramas, proving to be quite flexible in the way it utilised in the u-shaped auditorium, and not just in the special atmosphere it creates. This is something that extends to the play itself, feeling a much different beast from the Old Vic, almost like a new play in fact as I had been previously told. Gemma Arterton’s Duchess is a world away from Eve Best, more fragile perhaps but warmer too, especially when connecting with Alex Waldmann as her servant lover Antonio, the cause of much strife. 

And the architects of that strife are boldly done indeed. Sean Gilder’s spy Bosola is richly nuanced as conscience comes a-knocking; James Garnon revels in the devious antics of the Cardinal, brother to the Duchess; and as her other sibling, a twin no less, David Dawson’s Ferdinand is a career-best stage performance, both sinister and snivelling and truly disturbing. It will be fascinating to see how other plays fare in this space – a comedy is next up which will have entirely different demands – but I don’t know if I’ll be back to find out for myself if I’m honest, my body wouldn’t forgive me. 

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 16th February

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