John Webster’s most famous revenge tragedy makes Call of Duty look like Noddy’s Day Out in Toyland: the play begins as a love story, as the Duchess marries her low-born lover in secret, but ends with a pile of bodies and a stage dripping in gore. It was a brave choice, then, for three first-time Sixth Form directors (Lucien Whitworth, Will Shawe-Taylor and Angus Moore) and an enthusiastic cast of English A-Level students.
The action was mostly played on the apron of the stage, bringing the action close to the audience and creating an intimate and powerful theatrical experience. The simplicity of the monochrome set was extremely effective; the distorted chequerboard on the floor represented the complex power play between the Duchess (Flora Moreau) and her Machiavellian brothers (Angus Moore and Charlie Johns).
Flora Moreau played the Duchess with quiet dignity, giving her famous line, "I am Duchess of Malfi still", real poignancy and gravitas. Her stillness provided a dramatic foil for Ferdinand’s descent into madness. As Angus Moore scampered around the stage, howling like a wolf, we were left in no doubt that this was a mind unhinged by jealousy.
Perhaps the most challenging role in the play is that of the malcontent, Bosola, who first accepts Ferdinand’s commission to spy on the Duchess and is later afflicted with remorse. Will Shawe-Taylor’s performance conveyed the complexity of the character’s thought process with sophistication and nuance.
As is often the case with student-led productions, the directors had inspired students who had not acted before to take to the boards, and it was clear that they had discovered some promising thespian talent. Particularly impressive in cameo roles were Joe Dodd as the courtier, Delio and Marcus Clark as the Madman, but congratulations are due to all involved.