The Duchess of Malfi,  presented by the Red Bull Theatre, at St Clement’s Episcopal Church, New York City, February 27 – March 28, 2010

Cameron Hunt McNabb

 Cameron Hunt McNabb. “Review of The Duchess of Malfi, presented by the Red Bull Theatre at St Clement’s Episcopal Church, New York City, February 27 – March 28, 2010." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 17.1-9 <URL:>

Adapted and directed by Jesse Berger. Original music by Scott Killian. Choreographed by Tracy Bersley. Violence by J. David Brimmer. Lighting by Jason Lyons. With Heidi Armbruster as Julia, Matthew Greer as Antonio, Carol Halstead as Cariola, Patrick Page as the Cardinal, Matthew Rauch as Bosola, Christina Rouner as the Duchess, and Gareth Saxe as Ferdinand.

  1. As I approached the dimly lit, tattered St. Clement’s Church, I realized just how appropriate the space was for Webster’s dark brand of theatre. Once inside the theatre, I encountered a nearly suffocating wall of magenta fabric, embroidered with gold, draped over every inch of the set, including the stage chairs. Only a light fixture that hung in the far right corner escaped its presence. But this feminine space was torn asunder at the end of Act Three: just before intermission, as the Duchess’s brothers were dragging her off to prison, the sea of magenta dramatically crashed onto the stage, with its glittery shimmer quickly swept away. Only the bare frame of the stage and a system of scaffolding behind it remained. The second half of the production recorded the Duchess’ life in this barren, masculine space, a space she would not leave.

  2. In many ways, this production was conventional. The costuming, though modern, indicated each character’s station, making all identifiable by dress alone—the Cardinal (Patrick Page) had on a traditional robe, Ferdinand (Gareth Saxe) donned a business casual suit, and the Duchess (Christina Rouner) wore a white ballroom gown, later exchanged for a tattered one in the prison scenes. Bosoloa (Matthew Rauch) sported an all black ensemble, with cargo pants, a buzz cut, and stubble, somewhat akin to Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne. Antonio (Matthew Greer) dressed down in slacks and a button-up shirt, lacking the coat and sophisticated flair of Ferdinand.

  3. Character interpretations, too, were conventional, and even conservative, for Webster’s bizarre and garish text.  A prefatory tableau introduced the Duchess and her background: she entered in her black mourning weeds behind the casket of her dead husband. She then exchanged her veiled garb—momentarily fully nude—for her dazzling white ballroom gown while her husband’s casket was carried off-stage. The Duchess emerged a sympathetic widow now back on the market, and this scene established her sexuality, an aspect emphasized in the rest of the production—she kissed and embraced Antonio often, with their affection highlighted in the bedroom scene with Cariola. But the contemporary tension between her personal desires and her regnal duties went unexplored, as the politically-geared lines were universally hurried through, casting the Duchess as the innocent heroine overrun by her corrupt brothers. This left her anagnorisis less pronounced, and her “I’m Duchess of Malfi still” line came off neutrally (and somewhat flatly), neither an anthem of the empowered noblewoman nor an expression of self-delusion.

  4. On the opposite end of the moral spectrum lay Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Initially, Ferdinand appeared as merely a servant to his brother’s designs, but his thirst for control became the catalyst for his digression into madness.  He showed no incestuous desires for the Duchess, no “sin in [them] heaven doth revenge” (2.5.65), which was a bit odd considering the play’s sexual opening. Moreover, the production staged the bedroom scene with Ferdinand threatening the Duchess on the bed, but, rather than moving closer in the manner of Mel Gibson and Glenn Close in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, the two kept their distance. Meanwhile, throughout the production, the Cardinal dominated the stage as a religious hypocrite, using his power only to manipulate those around him.   Not only was his physical presence commanding, but his delivery and movement overshadowed the smaller and more timid Ferdinand. However, unlike Ferdinand’s maddening descent, the Cardinal’s depravity always lurked calmly beneath the surface, Iago-like, and his motivations, if present, were not explicit.

  5. With three strong leads as the siblings, Matthew Greer as Antonio seemed destined for fourth place. Greer performed him as loving but passive in his relationship with the Duchess, and her initial dominance in the wooing scene never faded: Antonio’s lower status persisted in power if not class. In part, the dynamic is Webster’s, but the age difference (about a decade) and Rouner’s stronger stage presence contributed significantly. 

  6. However, the production departed notably from tradition during the madhouse scenes. Initially, the scene was powerful: the madmens’ shouts and tantrums created a sense of disorientation and raised audience expectation to a pitch. But this fever was deflated when, mid-scene, a microphone dropped from the ceiling and the Duchess launched into a cabaret song, equipped with dancing lunatics behind her. The spectacle may have been humorous, and even hinted at the absurd dream-life of the Duchess, but it followed too hard upon the dysphoric scene prior. Only half the audience laughed, and I personally found it difficult to switch gears. The cabaret scene itself quickly dissolved into the Duchess’s approaching death, and it was minutes into this scene before the image of the dancing Duchess could fade.

  7. The madmen scenes, however, were just beginning. One crux in staging The Duchess of Malfi lies in the representation of the waxen figures, and this production’s minimalist approach dictated its technique. Since dummies rather than child actors were used to represent all three children in earlier scenes, the audience had already identified the stuffed dolls as real ones. So, when the dummy of the eldest boy was then revealed hanging from the scaffold, bloody and apparently dead, those unfamiliar with the play identified the dummy as real, and really dead. The moment was powerful. It was not until Ferdinand’s confession of the waxen figures that much of the audience recognized the ruse. 

  8. The final death scenes were also compelling, the Duchess’s in particular. The dangling lamp that previously furnished her palace lay in a heap on the stage, and the executioners took the lamp strands and cord, wrapped her throat, and strangled her. As the life in her waned, the lamp flickered on and off . . . until it finally expired. The strangulation was also graphic, in that it took the two men great force to take the wealth of life she had in her; she did not go quietly. Neither did Cariola; her physical and emotional hysteria flooded the stage as she fought bitterly against her tormentors. The violence escalated in the death of the two youngest children: a plastic sheet was pinned up beneath the scaffold, and, in silhouette, the two were killed—one with a loud neck snap and the other brained against the metal pole. Blood splattered on the plastic and the limp bodies fell to the floor. Even with the use of plastic baby dolls, the scene still turned my stomach.

  9. The use of stage blood flowed heavily in the remaining scenes, with blood spilling forth from Julia, Antonio, Ferdinand, the Cardinal, and Bosola. Amid their violent and passionate fight, Ferdinand stabbed the Cardinal in the groin, causing blood to shoot out. The scene, whether intended or not, was humorous: the audience laughed amid all the bodies strewn upon the stage. The groin stab might be appropriate for the licentious Cardinal, but its position in this bloodiest of scenes was out of place. Like the cabaret digression the act before, the shift from serious to comedy and back again was too quick for such a weighty end. The body count grew as Bosola shot Ferdinand in the mouth, with a resounding “bang,” and then himself died bloody on the already blood-smeared stage.

  10. In the program notes, director Jesse Berger characterized The Duchess of Malfi as a play with “an intense fascination with the macabre”, and despite the sometimes awkward mix of humor and tragedy, his production vividly and contemporarily brought that to the forefront. He managed to stage Webster’s demanding text in a straightforward manner, perhaps a macabre task in itself, but one certainly worthy of praise.

Works Cited


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© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).