Review: Exeter University Shakespeare Company’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’

The Chapter House at Exeter Cathedral was lit by candles on Monday’s chilly winter evening, ready to host the cast and crew of Exeter University Shakespeare Company — who have been rehearsing since late September — as they prepared to take Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi onto the stage. The Chapter House provided both an intimate setting for the tragedy — with dialogue often occuring in the aisle, fully immersing the audience into the plot — and yet also presented the audience with the grandeur and awe that naturally comes with the divine space, the balance of the two perfect for such a production. The rows of chairs were adorned with fake ivy which, coupled with the grand nature of such a space, transported the near-full audience into a realm of Jacobean atmosphere.

The production — with Jo Leyland as it’s director and Fiona Winning as it’s assistant director — took an innovative approach to a classic text, an approach made clear from the very beginning with its costumes signifying an imbrication of contemporary elements of dress with modern ones. What is most notable about this innovative production, however, is its gender swap element where the Duchess of Malfi’s lover is no longer a man, but a woman. This different take on the text adds a modernising element to the tragedy, allowing it to stay true to Webster’s characterisation whilst providing a refreshing twist that brings the Jacobean play into the 21st century. Of course, The Duchess of Malfi is already notable for its centring of a female lead, but this production’s inclusion of another, especially as the Duchess’ lover, elevates the play from its contemporary state to a modern, innovative one. 

The passionate love affair between the Duchess and Antonio was beautifully portrayed by Anna Hewitt and Alice Robinson, whose takes on the characters only strengthen the heartbreakingly tragic trajectory of the lovers. The marriage scene between them captured the passionate excitement of new love which then tragically turns into a tale of violence and revenge in the second-half of the show. This change in tone was managed well by the cast, especially by Hewitt and Robinson whose moments of interaction with violence emphasised the tragic genre of the play and the passionate love their characters had for one another.

Image Source: Fiona Winning (Assistant Director)

This violence, which underscores most of the second-half of the play, was handled sensitively and carefully by the cast, who innovatively used red beads to symbolise blood and a solemn walk through the audience to the very back of the space to symbolise the dead departing the scene, a walk which I am sure was haunting to every audience member. These instances of violence were so harrowing that the audience was left in shock for most of this second-half; The tension and sorrow was palpable and the space so silent that any movement at all would have been heard. Touching moments of friendship and love punctuated these moments of horror, most notably portrayed by Imogen Griffiths and Stella Stephens who performed as Cariola and Delio, respectively. Their sobs when losing those close to them deeply resonated with those present.

Image Source: Fiona Winning (Assistant Director)

Matt Page’s rendition of Bosola was a stand out performance, with his articulate and sharp dialogue anchoring the audience to the story and piercing through the moments of violence and heavy dialogue. His voice, full of colour, added a dynamic and sometimes humorous edge to the serious plot. Of course, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, the Duchess’ two brothers, were menacing constants throughout. Connor Webster’s and Alfie White’s performances compliment each other perfectly, most notably in Ferdinand’s descent into madness, which was offset by the Cardinal’s cold and immovable character, creating the perfect balance that ensured the audience understood the dynamic between the two.

Exeter University Shakespeare Company has created a piece of theatre that stays faithful to the original text whilst also updating it with modern innovations. They should be proud to have staged a hauntingly beautiful production that showcases the wide range of talent — in both cast and crew alike — that they have to offer. Their rendition of The Duchess of Malfi has left imprints of the harrowing tragedy with its audiences, imprints that will surely stay with them after leaving the boundaries of The Chapter House.

– Lucy Evans

Featured Image Source: Fiona Winning (Assistant Director)

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