The Duchess of Malfi Reviews

Olivia Rook, Critics’ Circle Main Editor

Thought-provoking and powerful, the latest instalment in the Nottingham Playhouse conspiracy season did not fail to impress. The Duchess of Malfi, directed by Fiona Buffini, lived up to her previous productions, indulging in scenes of gore and violence which both delighted and repulsed audience members. The play follows the tragic story of the Duchess of Malfi and her desperation to be free of two brothers who dictate and rule her life. In disobeying their command to remain a widow, remarrying the lowly Antonio and conceiving his children, she forever loses their mercy and experiences their cruel, devastating revenge.

Critics’ Circle commended lighting designer Mark Jonathan, for his ingenious displays of light and dark through candlelight and playing with shadows. His symbolic treatment of light in a play preoccupied with contrasts was highly effective in conveying the corruption of the Duchess’s brother, the Cardinal, as a red filter flooded the stage, casting the most repulsive character of the play in bloody light. The general consensus from Critic’s Circle seems to be that the female lead, Beatriz Romilly, stole the show and impressed with her deeply emotive and powerful speeches. She conveyed strength even in her darkest moment, refusing to weaken in the face of death. It was also felt that perhaps, if the production was lacking in any area, the costumes would have been more effective if they had been linked to a particular time period. Buffini defended her reason for this ambiguity, however, during interview, explaining that this is a production relevant to modern times and, therefore, it seemed more appropriate to leave the setting unclear.

Overall, Critics’ Circle was impressed by Buffini’s production of this established play – our only warning it to watch out for the bloodbath in the final scene; it isn’t one for the faint-hearted!

Matty Collins

The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster and directed by Fiona Buffini, is a classic story about love, betrayal and conspiracy. Webster’s play is said to have one of the highest body counts in English theatre and after watching this outstanding piece, I can believe it. There are only about three cast members still alive by the end.

The play is set in the city of Malfi, within the house of a rich and powerful family that includes the fair Duchess (Beatriz Romilly), the twisted cardinal (Patrick Brennan) and Ferdinand (Chris Jared), a deranged man of power.

The two brothers travel to Rome on business, leaving the recently widowed Duchess with a warning not to remarry. It is a beautifully executed first scene, with commuters and their suitcases travelling in all directions. The Duchess is unable to resist the love of her treasurer, Antonio, who is below her class. They marry and have three children together. However, Bosola the treacherous spy, is paid by Ferdinand to be an intelligencer to track her every move.

As the play proceeds, the brothers discover her actions and try to stop the family fleeing and, at this point, we are introduced to the adorable children. In this heart-breaking scene Antonio leaves with his son and the Duchess takes the daughters just before she is caught. A scene of torture and murder soon follows; but I’ll let you discover this for yourself. Try to count how many deaths there are.

The Duchess of Malfi is an outstanding play with a fantastic performance from the cast and a very smooth and accurate delivery from the technical team.

Come and see The Duchess of Malfi! – Liam O’Donnell

I was pleasantly surprised by this play at the Nottingham Playhouse on the 3rd of November 2015. It is a wonderful tale, written by John Webster and perfectly directed by Fiona Buffini, looking at the story of a beautiful Duchess on a journey, from wealth to poverty, with little to live for.

The beautiful Duchess is left at home while her brother is travelling to see the Cardinal; little does he know that behind his back the Duchess gets married and has three children. She marries one of her servants, someone of a much lower class.

What do you think happens when the brother finds out upon his return?!

The set is spot on, especially with all the darkness, as it really gives an impression of all the doom and gloom that surrounds the Duchess as she hits rock bottom. At the start of the performance, the stage lights up with riches, jewels and gold.

The director explained to us that the play reflects the world we live in today; a world full of poverty, jealousy and people controlling others. Even though it was written 400 years ago!

The cast is superb and I am impressed at their ability to speak fluently in the old English language.

This is the cast:
Beatriz Romilly as the Duchess is excellent and her crying and death scenes are very convincing.
Patrick Brennan as the Cardinal is good in one of the key roles, portraying a real baddie.
Jamie Satterthwaite as Antonio, the husband to the Duchess, plays a convincing role.
Matthew Wait is the filthy spy who has been summoned by the Cardinal and Ferdinand (the brothers of the Duchess).
I would rate this play suitable for 14+ because of all the violence and gore.
The direction is brilliant and I would like to see another play directed by Fiona Buffini.
The Nottingham Playhouse is an excellent venue and tickets are good value for money. Well done!
I rate it 10 out of 10 as it’s a MUST SEE!!!

The Duchess of Malfi: Understanding Jacobean theatre – Morris Finlay

Jacobean theatre is famous for its bloody tragedies, in which, undoubtedly ‘everyone dies’ and The Duchess of Malfi is truly no exception to this.
But, the other thing Jacobean theatre is famous for is its language. The plays are often written in verse; a way of writing which could be considered more poetry than dialogue.

The Duchess of Malfi contains some beautiful imagery, such as, ‘I do account this world but a dog-kennel’. This must be imagined by the audience to be understood, and I feel this production perfectly tackled such metaphors for the understanding of a modern audience, who are not used to this style.
With Jacobean theatre, it is not the lines themselves that give away the plot, but rather, the way in which they are delivered and staged. All too often people read Shakespeare and dismiss it as being flowery and confusing. I believe that the only way to experience and truly understand these plays, is to watch them being correctly performed.

The cast of the Nottingham Playhouse’s The Duchess of Malfi, have the tremendous ability to take the words in a 400 year old page and communicate them in such a way so that the plot is easily understandable. Although the play is set somewhat timelessly and the text is consistently true to Webster’s original, the influences and expressions of the words make the play easy to follow – not modernized, but simply correctly performed. A very hard feat to achieve.
The style, performance and direction of the play are very successful in not allowing the audience to be spoon fed the plot, but they are, instead, invited to listen closely, think harder and picture for themselves what is going on. This is how Jacobean theatre should be watched, and The Duchess of Malfi is enjoyable, understandable and relatable throughout. Not one to miss.

Death in Paradise – Elodie Fleet

The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster and recreated by the Associate Director of Nottingham Playhouse, Fiona Buffini, was a terrific performance. It truly demonstrated just how society has not changed in the last four hundred years as power still has the ability to corrupt.

This shocking tale presents the story of the Duke and his brother the Cardinal as their fury unfolds against their sister, the Duchess of Malfi, after she marries a man below her station. Each character’s fate is then sealed as selfish actions are made and all live in a state of purgatory.

The phrase “death in paradise” is the best way to describe the plot and was suggested by the set. The audience were first presented with a lavish fairy tale court that appeared to be perfect. However, like the plot itself, the set slowly spiralled into darkness, taking the characters with it.

The Duchess was a prominent character who provided light in the darkness surrounding her. It was refreshing to see a heroine lead, played by the fantastic actress Beatriz Romilly. Whilst some actors needed time to settle into their roles, the Duchess began strongly and showed consistent strength throughout, creating a truly believable character.

Whilst macabre tragedies aren’t to my taste, I can still appreciate a good performance when it is presented to me; as Nottingham Playhouse’s recreation of a long loved show was. I would recommend this to any lover of Shakespeare, although the language may prove hard to follow word for word. However, the plot is made easier to follow through the amazing acting and the great staging and lighting. All in all, a dark yet thought-provoking performance, perfect to fit in with the conspiracy season.

Bronwen Webster

The third show in Nottingham Playhouse’s conspiracy season, Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, is lauded as one of the most popular plays of the Jacobean period. The show promised a bloodbath, and it delivered just that. Gory and gruesome, with an incredibly intricate plotline, The Duchess of Malfi was an evening of high drama.

The set and lighting were stunning. Neil Murray and Mark Jonathan created images that were simplistic yet intricate, contrasting light and shade and bold colours with pale ones. The lighting threw beautiful patterns over the curtains, giving the illusion of prison bars, and the scenes that seemed to only be lit by candles drew in the audience intimately.

The acting did suffer a few drops in energy; however the women provided incredibly moving performances, particularly Beatriz Romilly (The Duchess) in the second act.

I did find the language to be a slight barrier; there were moments when it wasn’t as clear as it could have been, leading to me getting a little lost in the plotline.

Whilst being a compelling watch, I did sometimes find it hard to stay attentive to the story. For this reason (and the gore), I would only recommend the show to people aged 16 and upwards. Overall, The Duchess of Malfi is a strong piece of theatre, and I would recommend going to see it before the end of its run on Saturday 14th November.

BLOOD, GUTS AND GORE – Alice Malyon

Nottingham Playhouse’s production of The Duchess of Malfi, written by John Webster in the 1600s and directed by Fiona Buffini, made for an interesting and entertaining evening. My experience of the play mirrored its themes; the piece is an intensely dramatic one, filled with light and dark, and this performance of it, although dotted with gems, contained a few fatal flaws.

It follows the tale of the Duchess of Malfi, who marries against the wishes of her tyrannous brothers and whose life, but not spirit, is torn to shreds in a corrupt world.

There were a couple of dazzling performances, most notably that of Beatriz Romilly, who played the title role with shining emotional honesty. Her character was an admirable one, and she played her progression beautifully. This, however, was an exception. The rest of the performances felt over-the-top and gratuitous. My issue was not with the play’s dramatic telling of the madness, murder and lust, but in the fact that the majority of the actors stayed at this height of emotional intensity throughout. There was no light and dark, no complexity, and the impact of the second act felt ridiculous with its melodrama. Horribly, the audience broke out into laughter as the central characters died; the actors must be applauded for retaining their professionalism.

I enjoyed the archaic language and thought Webster’s vivid description and beautiful metaphors, used to comprehend the wildly terrible world of the play, were wonderfully composed.

Overall I found the play entertaining, the plot was intricately woven, the lighting was masterfully designed – the use of candlelight was breathtaking – and the set was an ornate statement, but I’m afraid to report that, for me, a little more subtlety would not go amiss.

A VERY BLOODY BLOOD-BATH! – Poppy Cook

The Duchess of Malfi is a typical Jacobean tragedy containing lots of violence and a very bloody blood-bath. Underneath the conspiracy is a simple plot-line; the Duchess of Malfi (recently widowed) is warned by her two brothers not to remarry. They employ Bosola to spy on her. Unsurprisingly, her brothers find out about her marriage, and she is left to deal with the consequences that follow.

The play is set in a corrupt world, which is why it is still relevant to today. The Cardinal, one of the Duchess’ brothers, is set against his sister remarrying as it is against his Catholic faith; however, throughout the play he commits many sins.

The casting of the play was extremely well done; each character was very different from the rest and I thought that all of the actors portrayed their characters effectively. In particular I would like to comment upon Chris Jared’s performance as Ferdinand, one of the Duchess’ brothers. All I will say, without spoiling it, is that the character development of Ferdinand is very drastic and Jared’s energy on stage throughout kept the piece gripping from start to finish.

A simple set was made brilliant by the ingenious lighting, designed by Mark Jonathan. The use of darkness within the play is something often shied away from by directors and designers, as it can impede the audience’s view of the action; however, in The Duchess of Malfi, Jonathan is very brave with his use of darkness, several scenes using real candlelight, adding to the atmosphere during intense scenes.

Do not be put off by the fact the play is written in verse as it is made easy to understand by the strong acting. I would recommend the play to anyone who enjoys a gory fight or two.

Maddy Chapman

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is currently showing at the Nottingham Playhouse as the next production in the conspiracy season. This theme is certainly prominent throughout the play as the plot twists round secrets, love and violence. The script is over 400 years old and I found the production much like a jump back in time to the kind of experience theatre would provide all those years ago. It left me with a longing to see more plays from this time as the actors didn’t remain still for a minute – the action was intense, exciting and constant. Obviously the language used was not familiar to a modern audience but this mattered very little as the plot was largely simple to follow and with a little concentration, the language revealed itself to be beautifully illustrative.

Furthermore, the delivery was excellent, as most actors managed to resist becoming too melodramatic and spoke as a regular person would, despite the complex and non-naturalistic language. There were moments where the standard of acting dropped and lacked authenticity, probably due to speaking in verse, but largely the performances, especially from Beatriz Romilly (the Duchess) and Chris Jared (Ferdinand), were enchanting.

I also enjoyed the set and the variety within it. The play jumped through countless settings and Neil Murray, the designer, tackled this by making minor but influential set and prop changes so the location was clear but without hassle. Lastly, Mark Jonathan’s lighting of the piece was magnificent. In a talk before the show, Director Fiona Buffini told us he ‘paints with light’ and this was clear on stage as there he illuminated just what was needed to bring atmosphere and clarity, with surrounding darkness producing a contrasting, eerie feeling.

I would recommend The Duchess of Malfi as long as you’re over 14, as, though it isn’t a light-hearted laid-back evening, the show tells a great story and is an insight into classic Jacobean tragedy performed extremely well.

DARKDECEPTIONDISINTEGRATION – Isabella Elliott

The production of The Duchess of Malfi on the 3rd of November was performed on the main stage at Nottingham Playhouse. It was originally written as a play by John Webster in the Jacobean era.

The Duchess is flung into a dark fairy tale when she defies her brothers and marries beneath her class. They are furious and send a spy to watch her every move. However, the plan goes drastically wrong and ends up swallowing all involved.

I found the set, designed by Neil Murray, stunningly beautiful. Simple but elegant and innovative, objects were raised up and down from the ceiling to change the location and the items on stage were on wheels which allowed action to flow from scene to scene. I found the set an asset to the play because it gave us just enough detail about where we were and, at the same time, it didn’t distract from the acting.

Beatriz Romilly, the Duchess, was fantastic and gave one of the strongest performances in the whole play. I think this is true because Jacobean theatre can sometimes appear overacted and cheesy. Her performance, on the other hand, was realistic, moving and dynamic.

This play is relevant for the Nottingham audience; in fact I think that this play is relevant for most societies because it relates to the power systems of today. The Duchess is living in a world of corruption, run by money and power, where men are the dominant gender and rule with cruelty and deception.

Overall I found the language of this play quite hard to understand and as it got nearer to the end more confusing and shocking. However, I did find the piece interesting and would definitely go and see more plays by the same director, Fiona Buffini.

Georgie Daunt

The Duchess of Malfi is a tragic love story that explores the forbidden marriage between the Duchess and Antonio, a man beneath her in class, and the revenge her brothers seek after hearing of the marriage.

Fiona Buffini’s adaptation of the play is set over two acts. The first act shows the fairy tale love story of the couple. The second act is much darker, showing the consequences of the brothers’ revenge, and how it destroys the lives of all the characters.

One of the things I liked most about the play was the contrast between the two acts. This was shown in the design and the lighting as well as through the characters themselves. Neil Murray (set designer) and Mark Jonathan (lighting designer) successfully set the acts apart using colours. The first act was very bright with lots of rich gold colours and warm candlelight, whereas the second act was very dark and bleak, reflecting the life of the Duchess. I found the costumes quite interesting as Fiona Buffini chose to leave the time period unclear as many of the character types are still seen today. As a consequence, the costumes were very ambiguous with a range of Jacobean and modern clothing and materials.

I thought that Beatriz Romilly (the Duchess) did an excellent job with her character, particularly in the first act when she seemed to be the strongest and most likeable character on stage. However, in the second act my eyes were often drawn to Matthew Wait (Bosola) as I felt that he clearly demonstrated the anguish Bosola feels about the tasks he is set.

To conclude, I found the play very interesting and would recommend it to a mature audience, as there is a scene in the second act that is quite hard hitting.

Chloe Brearley

We watched a play called The Duchess of Malfi and I was interested by the stage design. It just had a door and a big light which I thought was amazing; however, there weren’t many things on the stage. I thought that the way Fiona Buffini told the story was creative and interesting. It was very gory and violent with lots of blood and that was a bit scary, especially in the second part of the play, but I thought it was still good.

All the characters were strong, powerful and brave. They all played strong parts and the acting standard was good. It was a little bit confusing for me as it was quite hard to follow, however I understood most of it and I thought it was different. The lights were fantastic, and some scenes were quite dark without any lighting.

The story was about a woman who wanted to get married, but her brothers didn’t want her to. She then married a man of a lower class named Antonio, and they had three children together. Her brother eventually killed her (she was strangled to death) and afterwards, he felt bad about it. There was lots of blood and violence throughout. It was quite a dark, frightening play.

I think Beatriz Romilly, who plays the Duchess of Malfi, gave the strongest performance, because she had a strong character and she played it really well.
I did enjoy the performance because it was different, even though it was sometimes scary in parts, and it kept the audience’s attention throughout. It was both a love and horror story, I thought. There was a scene at the end where everybody was stabbed and killed. It could have been more gripping in the first part of the performance, and then it would have been better. I would like to see more plays by the same director because she made a really good and interesting show. It was a thrilling play although I found the second part more exciting.

h3.The Duchess of Malfi – A Jacobean Tragedy Still Relevant Today – Katie Garratt

On the 3rd of November 2015, I ventured into the world of Jacobean theatre. The Duchess of Malfi is a wonderful example of a Jacobean tragedy, and Webster certainly does not hold back on the tragic!

This play takes you on an incredible journey, from the highest points of happiness to utter despair and heartbreak. Webster presents an admirable young widow, the Duchess, who falls in love and marries, going against her brothers’ orders. We are then taken on a heart-rending journey of corruption and death.
The set for this play was absolutely mesmerizing. It was minimalistic yet effective, helping to enforce the contrast between light and dark, a main theme throughout the play.

The cast was full of strong performers, however the actor that, for me, stood out the most was definitely Beatriz Romilly, who played the Duchess. She captivated throughout and managed to beautifully portray both sheer happiness and absolute despair. Her performance in the first scene of the second half was utterly gut wrenching and showed magnificently the heroine that Webster was trying to create.

Although the first half of the play is relatively slow moving, the second half entirely makes up for it. It’s jam-packed full of drama, action and truly moving scenes and monologues. It successfully portrays the corruption of society which is still surprisingly relatable in the modern day. Fiona Buffini directed this exceptionally well and it’s a must see for anyone who loves Jacobean theatre and isn’t scared of a bit of tragedy.  

The Last “I do” – Louisa Barton

Here I lay
Here I stay
Ropes tied around me in knots
Here I lay
Here I stay
Body rests but soul does not
I see before me
The light does shine
My love’s face
In front of mine
I walk to heaven
Not to hell
I see the light
And hear a bell
Then I awaken
To the world that waits
I fall into the light
Return to my fate
Somewhere my love
I lost touch with you
As at those gates
Was the last ‘I do’.

Carys Brown

The Duchess of Malfi is a dark, dramatic revenge tragedy told through verse and onstage action. Set in 16th century Italy, the Duchess is a strong-willed yet free-spirited woman who defies her brothers by remarrying a man “below her”, following the death of her first husband. As the play goes on, things get darker and more brutal. In true Nottingham Playhouse style, there is no compromise in terms of blood, misery or madness.

All of the actors ensured that their characters were strikingly different to one another through their bold personalities. Chris Jared gave a terrifying, yet fantastic portrayal of Ferdinand: the evil and insane brother of the Duchess. He did not fail to make his evil intentions clear despite the complex language used in the play.

The set design awesomely captured the feel of the piece; it was bold, with a beautiful contrast of light and dark on stage. This was achieved through both the lighting – which very clever as it emphasised characters’ shadows, therefore making them more sinister – and the simple, yet iconic scenery. I felt a little let down by the costumes, as they didn’t stick to a certain time period. This made characters look out of place at times which, for me as an audience member, didn’t really work.

This play was tragic in every way imaginable, and while the thought of a 500-year-old play is sometimes a bit off-putting, there is never a dull moment on the stage. Not a word of the script, whether romantic, evil or hilarious, is lost by the characters.

Alex Clarke

The Duchess of Malfi is a Jacobean play written by John Webster between 1612 and 1613, and first published in 1623. This production, as part of the conspiracy season at Nottingham Playhouse, had Fiona Buffini as director, Jon Nicholls as composer, Neil Murray as set and costume designer and Mark Jonathan as lighting designer.

Based around a secret marriage, The Duchess of Malfi is a macabre tragedy, involving espionage, betrayal and murder most foul. The Duchess has two brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, who insist she doesn’t remarry. She doesn’t take this advice and marries in secret, leading to the ensuing tragedy.
One great aspect of The Duchess of Malfi was the fantastic lighting. A lot of each scene’s emotion could be shown through the lighting, which helped in carrying the difficult dialogue. The Duchess maintained a natural radiance even in the scene where there was no light on the stage around her. Church scenes used a strong red light to show the Cardinal’s corruption upon his every entrance, and spotlights for the pure characters brought them to life.

Beatriz Romilly, who played the Duchess, gave an amazing performance that drove home the significant contrasts between the pure characters and the corrupt ones in charge. Chris Jared, who played Ferdinand, was able to portray a mad character excellently without taking away from the character’s clear motives.
Overall, I found The Duchess of Malfi very enjoyable (despite finding the language quite difficult to understand) as the lighting and set were able to bring through the story.

Patrick Daunt

The Duchess of Malfi is a tragic play, which swoops from dark scenes (literally and thematically) to comedy, even at the most unexpected of moments. At times I felt it should have been more focused on the story’s tragic elements, especially nearer the end of the show. I didn’t find myself particularly attached to the characters, meaning that I felt little emotion regardless of what ultimately happened to them.

Though I understood everything that was said, I still found myself leaving the theatre having missed something. I felt the audience were being thrown information rather than being told a story, which took away what would otherwise have been a moving, tragic story. There were, however, still moments which I found deeply moving, and moments at which I laughed.

One of the things that did draw me into the piece was the use of shadows. There was a moment where one of the villains of the piece was stood near the front of the stage, with his shadow perfectly silhouetted on the large double doors behind him. This gave the scene a much more ominous nature, and a unique feeling.

There was also a nice use of transparent curtains, showing things only at certain times, which was used to shock the audience and create a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere.

Holly Jackson

The Duchess of Malfi is a Jacobean revenge tragedy by John Webster, following the events which unfold after the widowed Duchess marries a man named Antonio against her brothers’ wishes. Things rapidly go downhill from here, accompanied by much plotting and spying.

There were many different, interesting contrasts in the show which were elegantly depicted. There was a strong contrast between the beginning and the end, as the lives of the main characters deteriorated from a grand fairy tale full of romance, to a dark and imprisoning nightmare.

Another key contrast was formed between the Duchess, her brothers, and other dark characters. The Duchess was optimistic and represented traditional moral values, whereas her brothers were scheming antagonists.

Lighting and colour (in some cases the lack thereof) established these contrasts. The lighting was exceptionally sophisticated and well-considered, highlighting everything necessary. Darkness was also utilised effectively, concealing the back of the stage. The lighting emphasised the moral differences between the Duchess and the darker characters, with the immense volume of light which accompanied her on stage, and exited with her, leaving the more sinister characters in darkness. The beginning of the play was filled with rich, warm light, whereas the second act was much darker, with ominous lighting. For the more cheerful scenes, brighter colours were used; whites and golds. By comparison, for darker characters and scenes there was black and red, and eerie greens and blues dominating the stage. These contrasts made the atmosphere of different scenes perfectly clear.

The actors were all impressive, conveying the story and atmosphere with skill despite the occasionally complex language. They depicted the characters with sophistication, displaying the journeys the characters take, and in some cases, their descent into madness.

There were ghosts, lurking figures and lots of blood contributing to the chilling atmosphere of the play. The exaggerated drama was engaging.

Harry Kenyon

On Tuesday the 3rd of November, Critics’ Circle went to see The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster and directed by Fiona Buffini. The Duchess is a young widow, whose two brothers attempt to ensure that she never remarries as they intend to inherit her wealth and estate. Despite this, she falls in love and bears children in secret. Her two brothers discover this and seek vengeance.

The set design was ornate and elegant, partnered with a beautiful use of lighting. Delicate cloths hung from each side of the set, framing a large golden door which acted as the central entrance. All of this gave a grand but homely feel to the scenes, particularly when coupled with the sophisticated lighting that seemed to originate solely from candlelight. Beatriz Romilly, the Duchess, depicted with skill the innocence of this heroine amongst the corruption that surrounds her. She stood out as a character less tainted by corruption and greed than others on stage; in particular, her villainous siblings. Peter Bray, as Delio, also gave a strong performance and made the somewhat difficult language easier to understand.

In conclusion, the play was good. The set was clever and the lighting ingenious. The acting from one or two characters was slightly inconsistent at points. The second half of the play left the audience on the edge of their seats. Overall, an interesting production, in terms of both the plot and the skill of the lighting and set designers.

Photography by Sheila Burnett.