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The Duchess of Malfi: An Italian horror story

Creation theatre review

The Duchess of Malfi: Creation Theatre in front rooms everywhere March 17 – 27

By Jon Lewis

Management guru Peter Drucker wrote in 1980 that ‘the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic’. Thus, during the first turbulent lockdown, Oxford’s Creation Theatre Company did not waste time planning to stage live shows in a venue, but moved their operation online, producing a series of excellent Zoom productions, of which the latest is the Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.

The production is jointly directed by actress and director Natasha Rickman, and Oxford University early modern drama academic Laura Wright, who directed the experimental online rehearsed reading of Henry VIII last year for Creation. There is also backing from Oxford University’s research centre, TORCH. And, thinking of Drucker’s quote, this is a play full of danger precisely because in the turbulent times of the early 16th century in Italy, all the central characters are doomed precisely because they act according to yesterday’s logic.

The duchess of the title is a young widow (Annabelle Terry) who secretly marries Antonio (Kofi Dennis) and has three children with him. This marriage is opposed by her two brothers, the Cardinal (Giles Stoakley) and Duke Ferdinand (Dharmesh Patel). They can only think of tried and trusted solutions to their sister’s disobedience: hire a psycho killer, Bosola (Graeme Rose) to make her an offer she cannot refuse.

The aesthetic of the drama is that of the mid-s 70s, the time of many lurid horror films of Dario Argento, with touches of silent movies with scenes bathed in monocolours. While the actors are performing live in their homes, the trickery of Zoom technology enables the image of one actor to be overlaid on another, as in the surprisingly effective scene where Bosola places a choker around the neck of a victim.

As the plot moves towards its final scenes of bloodbaths, there’s a ramping up of the horror elements. Patel’s Duke’s is especially unsettling as his persona shifts from the Godfather towards Freddie from Elm Street. Terry reprises her Italian accent from her chef in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and, like Rose, is a compelling online presence. The Jacobean era may be a turbulent period in history but Creation Theatre Company is again, defying the times.

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