6 September 2013

The Duchess of Malfi at the Southwark Playhouse

This was my second visit to the Southwark Playhouse but my first to this building as they had moved South along Borough High Street from their Thameside location by London Bridge to a new location just shy of Elephant and Castle.

I wanted to see their new theatre and I wanted to see this play too as it had been described thus, "With only seven actors, six chairs and a gramophone, the play confronts the themes of morality, class and sex head on."

I liked the new theatre from the beginning. It's shambolic appearance, much like the Arcola's, was cosy, welcoming and definitely arty. The bar area was spread across four linked rooms filled with sofas and cushions.

The theatre itself was much like the old one with a bare wooden floor and seating on three sides. I claimed a seat in the front row.

As is quite common these days, the cast were already on stage as we entered, sitting motionless on the chairs.

The play started suddenly with all the cast adopting broad grins and staring directly at the audience. I lost my staring contest with the cardinal.

The story of The Duchess of Malfi is one of family conflict with the Duchess's two brothers scheming to stop her remarrying to protect their inheritance. There are all sorts of machinations, double-crosses, mistakes and general nastiness. It does not end well.

What did go well was the production and I loved every minute of it.

Two aspects of the production played off nicely against each other, one bare and one rich. The set was all but empty, matching the minimalist mood of the theatre, and that left space for the cast to do things, like the opening grins, that filled the spaces left by the missing props.

What also worked was delivering the play without a break. I am a big fan of this approach as it maintains the continuity of the story. The only exception should be when a play is written for a break to allow it to change direction.

I had been slightly worried that after visiting three exhibitions in the afternoon, and travelling across London to do so, that I might flag a little but the performance was far too engaging for that to happen. I was enthralled from before the start to the very end.

Everything about The Duchess of Malfi was just as I like my theatre and the Southwark Playhouse is just the sort of venue that I like too.

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