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Lydia Wilson ‘Truly Soars’ In Duchess Of Malfi At The Almeida

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Lydia Wilson ‘Truly Soars’ In Duchess Of Malfi At The Almeida

‘Duchess Of Malfi’ at the Almeida tells a powerful story of love, jealousy and power.

After giving an Olivier Award-nominated performance in King Charles III at this Islington venue five years ago, Lydia Wilson returns to the Almeida Theatre stage, this time playing the titular role in The Duchess of Malfi under the directorial guidance of Olivier Award-winning Rebecca Fracknell. Wilson gives a sublime performance as the widowed Duchess, whose new marriage with steward Antonio sees her twisted brothers become set on destroying her life, her love, and her status. The result is a stunningly clever, absorbing, and thrilling version of John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy – one that is simply unmissable.

 

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Fracknell manages to very effectively cut through any chance of stuffiness in Webster’s piece, bringing it right up to speed with modern audiences by ensuring the play remains entirely centred around a woman of will, strength and humanity in the Duchess, even after her death. Chloe Lamford’s simple yet standout set helps to keep a freshness to the near three-hour experience, comprising centrally of a large perspex changing-room-cum-display-cabinet, two glass filled with items of elegance, and the nod to a separate room or three towards the wings. 

It’s in this very ‘Almeida’ way of stripping a piece back in reviving it that Fracknell has really allowed this tragedy the space to breathe – each character being allowed a journey worth investing in, each theme and feeling given a platform on which to be explored, and the death heavy tragedy at the core of Webster’s work transformed into something psychologically captivating.

 

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What really makes this Duchess of Malfi stand out, though, is a whole cast on top of their game, delivering some truly incredible performances. As the Duchess’ increasingly ruthless brothers, Jack Riddiford and Michael Marcus really put on a thrilling display. The former’s descent into maddening rage as Ferdinand is captivating, with Riddiford allowing the character’s unhealthy and incestuous obsession with controlling his sister’s life grow in a way that’s hauntingly visceral. Marcus as the Cardinal, meanwhile, brings the perfect marriage of arrogance and villainy to a role that could so easily be mis-hit.

As the widow’s new love, Antonio, Khalid Abdalla remains vulnerable throughout, bringing a shining light of balance to a piece full of ulterior motives. Abdalla’s decency and deftness in the role allowing the perfect backdrop for the shifts of power surrounding and shown by Wilson’s Duchess to be given the focus they deserve. Leo Bill is typically strong as Bosola – a downtrodden spy wrapped up at the centre of these power struggles – weaving the piece together with great impact, occasional humour, and incisive timing.

 

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It’s Lydia Wilson who is the real standout star in this work, however, melding strength, beauty and humanity together perfectly in the titular role. This Duchess is one who is just at home facing up to whoever stands in the way of her life as she is playing with or weeping for her children, while caring deeply and sharing her life with those who are loyal to her and love her.

Despite Webster’s writing seeing the lead gotten rid of two thirds into the piece, Frecknall has chosen to have the Duchess haunt the stage after this, tormenting and watching over the men who tried to take her agency and destroy all that she had built for herself. The words “I am Duchess of Malfi still” seem even more relevant and stand-out than they already were in Wilson’s portrayal and under Fracknell’s direction.

 

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There are occasional points at which this revamped Duchess of Malfi stumbles, with the slight overuse of ‘slow motion’ movement failing to hit the mark. The text projections and use of music also feel slightly irrelevant and predictably ‘Almeida’ at times. The flaws are minor, however, and it truly does feel like a breath of fresh air has been given to Webster’s play. The stamp of Rebecca Fracknell’s talent is clear to see in managing to ramp up the horror, thrills and power plays of this Jacobean tragedy, while keeping the emotional journey grounded and relatable. Plus, at the centre of it all, we get a masterclass from Lydia Wilson, who truly soars.

Duchess of Malfi runs at the Almeida Theatre until January 25.

Words by Ollie Cole. Images by Marc Brenner, via Instagram. 


Also published on Medium.

Tags: theatre