John Webster,The Duchess of Malfi.
Presented by Apricot Theatre Company on tour to London, York, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 1 July - 30 August 2004.

Thomas Larque
University of Kent

Larque, Thomas. "Review of John Webster,The Duchess of Malfi. Presented by Apricot Theatre Company on tour to London, York, and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. 1 July - 30 August 2004" Early Modern Literary Studies 11.3 (January, 2006): 19.1-9 <URL:>.

Directed by Mark Edel-Hunt. Musical Direction by Ros Steel. Lighting by Chris Swain. With Gillian Bayes (Ferdinand and Bosola), Mark Edel-Hunt (Cariola and Delio), Benedict Hitchins (Antonio and Julia), Rachel King (Duchess and Cardinal), Robert Leigh (Ferdinand and Bosola), and Ros Steele (Duchess and Cardinal).
  1. A young theatre company made up of students and graduates from the University of York in England, Apricot Theatre trimmed The Duchess of Malfi to suit tiny studio theatres, microscopic budgets, 90-minute performance times, and a cast of six, and succeeded in turning these economies of scale and the non-naturalistic effects that they required to the play's advantage, retaining the essential elements of Webster's script while giving a meta-theatrical commentary upon it.

  2. Apricot took up the common modern reading of the play's final bloody and almost absurd pile-up of corpses as black farce, and used it as an excuse to read the entire play in terms of Victorian Music Hall, with its combination of high sentiment, low comedy, exaggerated emotion, and stylised gestures. The cast were made-up throughout with clownish white facepaint, broken only by black smears for eyebrows and mouths. Individual roles were both shared and doubled, with two female actors alternating the roles of the Duchess and the Cardinal, and one male and one female actor alternating the roles of Duke Ferdinand and Bosola. Each character was identified by a particular set of garments - a wrap-around skirt, or coat and hat - that was passed in full view of the audience from one actor to another as the actors changed roles. This unconventional fluidity between actor and role avoided confusion as a result of strong and consistent performances, with each character identified by a number of traits and characteristics but with each actor giving enough individuality to their own performance of each role to emphasise particular emotions and aspects of personality in relevant scenes. The female Bosola, for example, was sly (when spying on the Duchess's apartments) and pitiful (after mistakenly stabbing Antonio instead of the Cardinal) while the male Bosola was more overtly violent, characterised by concealed aggression (when giving the apricots to the Duchess) and direct brutality (when cutting the Cardinal's throat); similarly, the first Duchess was smooth and seductive (when indirectly proposing to Antonio, or lying to her brothers) while the second was coarser and given to displays of gross physical appetite (when greedily eating the apricots, or succumbing with equal physical greed to Antonio's sexual advances). These contrasting characteristics (based in individual actors) were effectively presented as different aspects of the same personality.

  3. The production was built around a textbook display of the Brechtian alienation effect, with the audience constantly reminded that it was watching a performance. The only scenery was theatrical curtains on a frame, upstage, that were used to reveal and conceal throughout the production. The action was repeatedly interrupted by, or interwoven with, audio recordings of music hall songs and live singing of Renaissance harmonies (deliberately incongruous amidst the nineteenth century setting of the rest of the production). In the most emotional scenes of the play, puppetry was used to distance the audience still further from the characters, with the evil Duke portrayed by a grotesque monstrous-headed puppet when he presented a severed hand to the Duchess. The Duchess in her own death scene was portrayed by a traditional child's doll, its serene emotionless face, frozen in conventional prettiness, emphasising the Duchess's performance in death of the feminine passivity and self-sacrifice demanded of her by her society. The Grand Guignol of the final scenes was emphasised by the ritualistic pouring out of a bucket of blood; subsequently those hurt and dying either drank from the bucket and spewed blood from their mouths, or casually marked out their injuries by pouring blood onto the area of the wound.

  4. The strength of Apricot's production lay in its ability to encompass the full range of emotion and effect, from moments of naturalistic tragedy to farcical comic exaggeration, reflecting the emotional journey of modern audiences confronted by Webster's sometimes painful, sometimes absurd story. The performance ended with an image that recurred constantly in the performance, with the actors' faces set in clownish but humourless rictus grins that effectively emphasised the skull beneath the skin.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).