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There is nothing of Daphne, Syrinx, or Anaxarete in Lydia Wilson's Duchess. She is defiant despite her destruction, vivacious despite her victimhood, unmoving despite her undoing. Rebecca Frecknall's gorgeous revival of the infamous Jacobean tragedy embraces the scandal, bloodshed and trauma of the original script while simultaneously updating the themes of gendered violence and patriarchal power.

The play opens with remarkable tenderness - undercurrents of the two brothers' sociopathy (Michael Marcus and Jack Riddiford) are gently ignored by the confident, pleasant Duchess. Her influence over Antonio (Khalid Abdalla) leads to a hugely wholesome romance, the destiny of which is foreshadowed by the appearance of a blood smear in the second half. The shift in tone is gradual at first, but rapidly escalates as the brothers' henchman Bosola (Leo Bill) finally figures out what's going and informs her siblings of her secret life. This reveal leads to one of the most intense, brilliant and terrifying performances I've seen on a London stage: the incest-obsessed Ferdinand strangles her sister to death.

There is no sense of hors-scene here: Riddiford and Wilson wrestle for what feels like hours with frighteningly convincing aggression. The audiences' reaction alone - discomfort, shock, even genuine concern - is a genuine testament to both actors skills. The scary, eerie violence is only magnified by Chloe Lamford's exceptional stage design: the transparent cage acts as both home and prison, safety and vulnerability, life and death. The deranged transformations of the characters are reflected in the slick, streamlined atmospheric changes to hair-raising effects. Eerie blues, poetic pinks and deep blacks all heighten the aura of uncertainty and dread.

The fear and beauty captured by Frecknall's updated directorship is especially impressive when compared to the original tones, themes and scripts of Webster's woks. She has made very few changes to the plot, and those she has are incredibly impactful. The gender reversal of the Duchess' remaining child is superbly powerful: family ravaged and ruined by greed, lust and power, her final stand ends the production on an almost hopeful note. The Duchess's resilience lives on, rising from the ruin of her family's destruction like a Phoenix from the ashes. The play is a stunning reconnection to pertinent themes, with a powerhouse of a cast and a visually astonishing set: Frecknell has succeeded in bringing an already significantly impressive play into the 21st century with striking beauty, intensity and nuance.

'The Duchess of Malfi' in on at The Almeida until Saturday the 18th January 2020. Tickets available here.

Image credit: Nadav Kander, Marc Brenner.


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