Feuding Families Take Center Stage


LONDON — Family life doesn’t have much going for it in “The Duchess of Malfi,” the blood bath of a play from John Webster in which corpses are piled high by a conclusion that is merciless even by 17th-century standards.

Centering around an ill-fated Italian noblewoman and her two venomous brothers, this favorite of the London stage has resurfaced in a sleek, stylish production from the director Rebecca Frecknall, at the Almeida Theater through Jan. 25.

Frecknall made her name on this stage with a highly abstract production of “Summer and Smoke” in 2018 that made its way to the West End. The similarly stripped-back, installation-art feel to her latest production is of a piece with the Almeida’s Continental aesthetic, as filtered through such English directors as Robert Icke, a former Almeida artistic associate.

Much of Chloe Lamford’s set — itself ready for display in Tate Modern — is given over to a glass box that makes the characters into human specimens on display. Microphones appear on cue, and chapter headings let us know where we are in Webster’s labyrinthine narrative.

The characters tumble toward the abyss, as Lydia Wilson’s transgression-prone Duchess lingers in view of the audience even after Webster’s text has relegated her to oblivion: The onstage structure becomes a transparent mausoleum whose inhabitants won’t be so easily dispatched.

And so the play’s women become silent witnesses from beyond the grave to the bloodshed of the men, who behave like beasts. (One of them — Jack Riddiford’s Ferdinand, the more outwardly crazed of the brothers — starts thinking he’s a wolf.) It’s a play that honors its author’s near-contemporary, Shakespeare, while mining even further depths of depravity.

Greetings have barely been exchanged before the brothers make clear their differences: Samad is more expensively educated and bookish, while the leaner, more impulsive Tom gives off an energy that Samad can’t match.

Told across 16 scenes, the last of which pushes events forward several years, the play has the feel of an uneasy mating dance.

Both performers are terrific. Shamji’s eyes hint at a reserve not easily cracked, while Karim’s volatility keeps pace with a restless sound design from Gareth Fry that suggests an amplified heartbeat. In the end, their arrival in each other’s lives merely leads to a further departure. The two may share DNA, but any emotional bond remains poignantly out of reach.

The Duchess of Malfi. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall. Almeida Theater, through Jan. 25.
Snowflake. Directed by Clare Lizzimore. Kiln Theater, through Jan. 25.
The Arrival. Directed by Bijan Sheibani. Bush Theater, through Jan 18.



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