“The Duchess of Malfi” at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Jeremy Malies on the South Bank
8 March 2024

Harold Pinter used to banter with friends by quoting bizarre moments in Jacobean revenge drama. His favourites included Ferdinand’s aside in The Duchess of Malfi: “I’ll go hunt the badger by owl-light.” I get it that the Duchess’s brother is barking mad by the time he says this, but wondered why dramaturg Zoë Svendsen chose to retain the line when there was certainly no laughter on the night I attended. (Nervous titters and faux-horror often help to make revenge drama succeed.)


Oliver Johnstone, Francesca Mills, Shazia Nicholls and Jamie Ballard.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Ten years after a production of The Duchess of Malfi starring Gemma Arterton opened the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, John Webster’s 1612 play is back at the Globe’s Jacobean-style indoor theatre under the direction of Rachel Bagshaw. After appearing as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream across the yard in the outdoor arena last year, Francesca Mills is luminous in the title role. This adjective barely covers it; under candlelight she is incandescent and almost cosmic like the planets that her character references.

In marrying for love outside her caste, the Duchess impugns the reputation of her family, prompting her brothers (Jamie Ballard as the Cardinal, Oliver Johnstone as Ferdinand) to commit a murder that could be lifted straight from accounts of so-called “honour killings” in our own society.

But I never quite understood how Svendsen and Bagshaw saw court society for this production. Webster was depicting real-life events that began in 1508, and as written the play teems with contemporary science, most notably optics, astronomy, and anatomy. All this was removed in a sensible manner with the classical and biblical references (there is talk of Charon, Pliny, Hercules, and Laban’s sheep) staying in. But I was still distracted by anachronisms: Bosola (Arthur Hughes) is put in charge of horses that are clearly for cavalry troops and yet the soldiers we see are sporting red berets as if they are paratroopers.

Ultimately, I suppose, the backdrop is unimportant. Bagshaw marshals the cast such that they show a vicious, largely amoral court. And despite the physical fragility of her character, Mills dominates amid all this. She projects courage, stoicism, and wit as well as absolute faith in a next world that she expects to be palpable. The Duchess stresses that she is flesh and blood unlike the alabaster figure that represents her at a memorial to her first husband. Mills and Bagshaw hint that the heroine is snatching happiness while understanding the myriad threats to her life. “I know death hath ten thousand several doors.”


Francesca Mills as the Duchess of Malfi.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Perhaps focusing on Webster’s single abiding image of her character, that of a trapped bird, Mills is often still. She rarely telegraphs anything, so making the occasional gestures powerful. Even movement direction (Ana Beatriz Meireles) and fight direction (Rachel Bown-Williams) avoid anything flamboyant. And it’s a bijou garrotting this one by Bosola who in some productions is accompanied by a team of assassins and even a winch! Mills and Hughes prove skilful in handling the Duchess’s momentary revival which is known to be technically difficult. If there could be a criticism of Mills, it might be that she could be more skittish as she assertively woos Antonio played by Olivier Huband.

Bagshaw’s general approach is to keep things fluid and uncluttered. The set by Ti Green has three steps to a raised platform and a revolve from which the Duchess looks up at the firmament and curses the stars. There are few notable props other than the odd hacked-off limb and poisoned Bible of course.

Musical director Joley Cragg, who is also on percussion, uses trills and ominous rattlings to stress that the natural world here is oppressive. The hymn-like music in the first half (composer Anna Clock) gives way to more jazzy strains with the orchestra coming on to the back of the stage and a saxophone predominating. Clock often works in a participatory and collaborative way, and their music here is never imposed but seems to emanate from the action.

Most scary are Green’s headsets for the gibbering madmen who Ferdinand releases from an asylum so that they can encircle the Duchess at her lodgings. Bagshaw could have ramped up the terror here by having the lunatics stalk the audience members though I’m not sure my ticker could have withstood this. As it is, we come close to questioning our own sanity which I believe is an aim of the play.

In Act IV, Bosola and the Duchess meet in her place of imprisonment for one of the greatest scenes in Jacobean drama. There is no sexual charge between them here. The dialogue can suggest this, but in his objective take on the character, Hughes chooses to make Bosola too pathological, introspective, and aloof (“My trade is to flatter the dead, not the living; / I am a tomb-maker”). At the moment of her execution, Mills is affecting when she shows the character thinking of her children in terms of small details of their lives, asking that her son should be given his cough syrup. It’s almost unbearable.

Bagshaw succeeds in melding the lycanthropy sequence in which Ferdinand imagines himself a wolf into the general perspective of dysfunction in the animal kingdom. Johnstone appears briefly at a gallery arch in a mask (it’s not particularly wolflike) and while not glossing over the theme, the production (with a few judicious cuts) ensures that this element does not derail matters.

Bagshaw moves the plot along briskly to what for me was another high point. Johnstone (who appeared in Henry V recently) is phenomenal with close psychological detail as he emerges into a few moments of sanity, lies close to the Duchess’s corpse, draws on some cradle memories, and tells us that she was his twin. You just know that part of the hatred emanates from the fact that she was more charismatic and popular in the nursery. Earlier, Johnstone has used his technique to show feelings for his sister that develop beyond physical admiration and a wish to be tactile into would-be incestuous rape. It’s multi-layered cinematic acting made possible in part by the small venue.

Voice coach Kay Welch helps each character find an angle on the unrhymed blank verse (it can be unforgiving) according to their social class, educational background, and level of sanity. There are many smutty jokes in the dialogue. Welch and the cast bring the obvious ones to the fore but there are no elaborate exercises in dredging up tiresome puns.

This will always be a gruelling watch and, without doing any totting-up, I guess that the murder headcount is higher than in Hamlet. Bagshaw has ensured the play is mesmeric without being warped out of its own guise, and the creative team understand that the subject matter of the play is strikingly modern. Crooked politicians, rogue priests, and romances that transcend class: none of these themes will date anytime soon.

But the most troubling aspect (and perhaps Webster’s way of insulting us across the centuries) is that while there are many noble and selfless characters in the plot, it’s the villains who have the most resonant and lyrical language as well as the most acute perception of beauty. In less assured hands, this play can be a museum piece, a curio for connoisseurs. Here it is thrilling.