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Vaulting Ambition present

The Duchess of Malfi

Photo by Giulietta Verdon-Roe

by John Webster

Directed by Dan Horrigan

Designer – J William Davis


Movement Director – Hannah Kaye


Circus Director – Tim Lenkiewicz


Assistant Circus Director – Michael Kahn


Composer – Martin White


Lighting Designer – Phil Spencer Hunter


Sound Designer – Sebastian Willan

New Players Theatre

8 April – 7 May 2010






A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

New Players Theatre is located under the Arches behind Charing Cross Station. It is a luxurious theatre with original Victorian features that harken back to its’ days as a Music Hall venue.

The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy. It tells the violent tale of the recently widowed Duchess (Tilly Middleton) and her secret relationship with her steward, Antonio (Peter Lloyd). However her dominating brothers, Ferdinand ( Alex Humes) and the Cardinal (Andrew Piper) have their own plans about who she should marry to gain from her inheritance and use Bosola (James Sobol Kelly) a previous servant to the Cardinal to spy on her every move. This results in a regretful death and the comeuppance of all.

Vaulting Ambition's production stages the play within a travelling circus troupe in the 1930's. The play features an ensemble of circus professionals, featuring an aerial silk performer (Will Davis), a Hoola-Hoop dancer (Tina Tuomisto) and a grotesque clown (Lazlo Pearlman) who all contribute to creating the bizarre world of the circus alongside the main cast. The chief question to ask is what purpose does it serve to have the play set amongst circus folk in the 1930's, other than creating an enjoyable spectacle? Horrigan recognizes that Webster's play is steeped in darkness and that a lot of the characters are larger than life. The circus setting allows the actors to inhabit a world where normality is abnormal, where the line between sanity and madness is often overstepped and where chaos is the natural order.   

Tilly Middleton plays the Duchess in a sparkling short dress. Middleton presents a woman who enjoys being attractive, yet is very conscious of her shelf life, and fully aware that her inheritance has given her a new lease of life. Middleton gives an impressive range of emotion in the role and portrays the fading starlet with a proud, passionate attitude.

Andrew Piper plays the Cardinal, dressed like a member of the Spanish inquisition, in a red trenchcoat and red gloves, he looks suitably demonic. Piper conveys the tyranny and corruption of a man who desires all to commit to his will with a commanding voice, strong presence and great control. As his plotting and subterfuge begin to crumble around him, Piper presents the true colours of the Cardinal with loathsome desperation. 

Alex Humes as Ferdinand, wears boots, black tights, striped shirt and waistcoat, somewhat resembling a pirate. Humes plays a man obsessed and portrays a whole spectrum of emotion from the initial over protective brother to a cunning paranoid plotter, to sadistic tyrant, eventually becoming a raving madman. Humes's energy and vitriolic presence combine with his insidious voice to powerfully portray a man who is utterly convinced of his right to dominate his sister.

James Sobol Kelly plays Bosola in striped shirt, short trousers, bowler hat and white, skeletal face paint, imagine Tom Waits. Kelly's performance is brilliant, acting in a role similar to a Shakesperean fool, able to get away with plenty as people underestimate him. Kelly captures the subservient, mischievous manner of Bosola as an underling, obedient to his masters.  As the play progresses he communicates the character's emerging sense of justice, inhabiting a serious depth of guilt and regret and conveying a conscience lacking in the other characters. Kelly is a consummate performer, able to switch between dynamic movement and complete stillness at the drop of a hat.

The stage is carefully designed by J William Davis to create the impression of being backstage at a circus, with a costume rack and various props visible downstage. Two ladders stand at either side of the stage leading up to two alcoves where Ferdinand and The Cardinal occasionally spy on the Duchess in an imposing manner.  Ribbons hang across the ceiling and a red ribbon is used for aerial silk at stages throughout the production. The aerial silk performances become a metaphor for the struggle for power and control, occurring during the most violent scenes - Davis skilfully ties himself in knots and suddenly lets go, falling to within inches of impact.

Credit goes to Phil Spencer Hunter as the lighting designer for his willingness to experiment with different ways of lighting the actors. An atmospheric mix of intense crimson and  cold blues reflect the freakish nature of the circus while at times a stage hand  picks up a spotlight and follows an actor  around the stage. At one point the light was even used as a weapon against Ferdinand, as he stares back into the glare and is forced to the back of the stage by its power.

The rumble of trains from Charing Cross must intersperse every production at the New Player's Theatre but in this play it provides an ominous sound that is at times fortuitously suitable. The theme music is in a slow circus style that accentuates the unhinged quality of the play and in the madhouse scene the hysterical laughter of a madman can be heard offstage, adding a truly disturbing quality.

The costumes are imaginative and bold, suitable for a 1930's travelling circus. The decision to have the Duchess's children as children's clothes on coat hangers was in line with the playful circus theme and suggested an indifference to their existence.

Vaulting Ambition's production of The Duchess of Malfi with its high quality of acting, mesmerizing acrobatics, circus themed staging and costume design vividly bring to life a four hundred year old play, somersaulting it into the 21st century. Revenge, being the dish of the day, is served up in a gleefully macabre way, while the sadistic elements of control and power at the heart of Webster's play are given a fresh lease of life that establish the play as a  forerunner of  the violent horror films that we see released today. In a play whose reputation is assured as a classic, it is great to see Vaulting Ambition approach The Duchess of Malfi from a thoroughly original angle, one which allows a play of such length and ornate language to remain consistently entertaining.



Photo by Giulietta Verdon-Roe



Box Office: 020 7478 0135

New Players Theatre
The Arches
Villiers Street

Shows Start: 7.30pm (matinees 2.00pm)

Tickets: £20.00/£15.00 






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