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The Duchess of Malfi
The Duchess: "Diamonds are of most value
They say, that have pass'd through most jewellers hands"
Ferdinand : "Whores, by that rule, are precious."

The Duchess of Malfi
Jess Murphy as the Duchess of Malfi (Photo: Jim Creighton)
It is the best of theatre sets. St Giles in the Fields is a lovely and ancient London church — it's very name suggests a rural London long since gone as it is on St Giles High Street in the shadow of Centre Point and the huge redevelopment around Tottenham Court Road Station and Crossrail. Scena Mundi have chosen to stage here John Webster's play The Duchess of Malfi, probably the greatest of the Jacobean tragedies of gore, lust, incest and murder.

We sit on wooden pews (take your own cushion), smell incense and witness the bell, book and candle. A lone violinist plays the thrilling arpeggios of the amazingly appropriate Danse Macabre from Saint-Saens and we feel the shivers as black hooded players dance an introduction. The excitement of Webster's elaborate and graphic language in verse awaits us.

Enter the steward, the goodly Antonio (Thomas Winsor) returning from France in the French fashion, where apparently they haven't yet invented the shirt and St Giles Church can be a tad chilly. Bosola (Jack Christie) illustrates the concept of remembered pain and a surprisingly relevant theme of today of a soldier returning from the wars, with little or no gratitude for his sacrifice. Bosola oozes villainy and seeks employment from the Cardinal (Martin Prest), but all that is on offer is to spy on the Cardinal's sister, the newly widowed and beautiful Duchess of Malfi (Jess Murphy).
Antonio's six pack is on display but he will be outdone in style by Pip Brignall playing the duchess's twin brother, Ferdinand, for whom a psychotic diagnosis might be possible. Ferdinand is definitely bi-polar, I'd say in a non-professional opinion, but his stage presence is electrifying, chilling and dominant. It is not long before the duchess spies Antonio's six pack and they embark on an o'er hasty marriage. The duchess's thickening of her waistline has Bosola using the apricot pregnancy test, well known in Jacobean times as a predecessor to ClearBlue. Apricots also had the reputation that they would induce a premature labour. Although Bosola suspects the duchess is pregnant, he has no idea who the father is.

Good guy Antonio is reunited with the play's other dependable male character, white bearded Delio (Rupert Bates) and we hear that the duchess now has rapidly had three children. Ferdinand writhes in agony as he has incestuous thoughts towards his sister, or perhaps really towards his brother in law, and Pip Brignall can writhe like a contorted Basilisk.

Joanna Simmonett doubles as the duchess's maid Cariola and as the Cardinal's mistress Julia: a difficult differentation in such a close-up space despite sterling efforts with her costume and hair. The Cardinal never quite struck a chilling enough note hampered by his white lace cassock although the red satin draped cape looked good but he needed a cap or hat. Also when the cast were called upon to act as lunatics or hooded dancers, the Cardinal's white lace skirt and red shoes stuck out like a sore thumb.

Of course Scena Mundi do not have the enormous resources of many of our national theatre companies to stage the bloodied bodies of the duchess's husband and children and therefore rely on the acting of the distraught duchess and Jess Murphy is remarkably good. Just before the interval, Bosola tricks her into a confession before telling us what he thinks of his employer, " I would sooner swim the Bermoothes on/Two politician's rotten bladders, tied /Together with an intelligencer's heart string/Than depend on so changeable a prince's favour."

Bosola is one of the play's most interesting characters as he has a complete change of heart and I totally believed Jack Christie's performance switch. Just as we had thought that Pip Brignall's Ferdinand couldn't be even more extreme, we hear he has a strain of Lycanthropia and is digging up dead bodies in the (adjacent) churchyard. The final murders feature the director Cecilia Dorland's idea of many daggers jabbing at the air as the body count rises as in all good Jacobean tragedy.

Enjoy this distinctive setting for Webster's famous blood and guts tragedy!

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The Duchess of Malfi
Written by John Webster
Directed by Cecilia Dorland
Starring: Jess Murphy, Pip Brignall, Jack Christie
With: Rupert Bates, Martin Prest, Joanna Simmonett
Costume Design: Gisele Venet
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 07419209755
Booking to 27th May 2017 at St Giles in the Fields, St Giles High Street, London WC
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 11th May 2017 performance at St Giles in the Fields, St Giles High Street, London WC (Tube: Tottenham Court Road)
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