Tilly Middleton, Andrew Piper, Peter Lloyd, Alinka Wright, Alex Humes, Alastair Sims, Stephanie Brittain, James Sobol Kelly, Lazlo Pearlman, Tiina Tuomisto, Will Davis
In Vaulting Ambition’s production of John Websters seventeenth-century play, the action is set amidst a 1930s circus troupe.
This enables the company to use its acrobatic skills to heighten the pieces dramatic impact, and to bring out many of the plays original themes.
The Duchess of Malfi tells of the title characters decision, after she is widowed, to remarry and have children because she truly loves the palace steward, Antonio. This, however, offends her brothers, the Duke and the Cardinal, who kill her, her children and several others in a tale of deceit, desperation and revenge.
By placing the action amidst a close-knit circus community, we enter a world of heightened emotions, and gain a keen sense of an insular, oppressive and judgmental society, from which there is little hope of escape.
The innovative staging is certainly integral to the overall effect. The stage possesses no backdrop so that we stare directly onto a backstage area packed full of circus props. As the audience enters, two acrobats warm up on stage, and the play begins with a wrestling match between Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Scenes are purposely staged to incorporate circus moves, and are frequently filled with sexual charge. The Duchess and Antonio embrace in a physical routine that sees him lifting her high, her bosom coming to rest in his face, and he lying directly over her.
The Duchesss waiting-woman frequently bursts into the song Honeysuckle Rose, messengers run on with female acrobats literally wrapped around their bodies, and the encounter between Antonio and Bosola sees stage hands shining portable spotlights upon them. The Duchesss children are portrayed using baby clothes on a coat hanger, and she is hanged from red ribbons that not long before were being used by acrobats to perform routines.
Some scenes, however, are still played fairly straight. They may be few in number, but they mar the overall extent to which it feels as if classic drama is being fused with circus magic, making the latter element feel, ever so occasionally, like an add-on. By the same token, however, it is a strength that the production remains so firmly grounded in the original play, and resists any temptation to update the dialogue.
Tilly Middletons performance as the Duchess stands out among the cast. Dressed in frilly circus garb, she combines sensitivity and compassion with strength, resilience and defiance as she determines to follow her heart. Andrew Piper is a suitably malevolent Cardinal, Alex Humes is persuasive as the raging Duke, whilst James Sobol Kelly convinces us that the vindictive Bosola really could succeed in winning the confidence of the Duchess in Act One, and then be filled with remorse as the body count rises. The acting at times could be more highly charged to make certain scenes feel more powerful, but at its best it is very good, and there is no denying the emotive force of the plays ending.