For even the most talented stage actor, Renaissance drama can be a monumental challenge to perform. Modern language is so far removed from the flowing, verbose scripts of yesteryear that knowing how to engage the audience is just as important as learning what to say. SuTCo’s The Duchess of Malfi succeeds as an enjoyable take on a classic tale of tragedy and betrayal, sometimes finding itself hindered by raw acting and uninspired recitation.
There can be no detracting however from some brilliant performances from star pairing Emily Bowles and George Evans as The Duchess and Antonio, with Bowles’ dedication to her titular role particularly impressive. One minute she stands defiant, tormented at the hands of her malevolent brothers, the next she softens and brightens in their absence. The Duchess is a varied and challenging part to play, yet Bowles delivers. Evans, too, engages with his character with palpable enthusiasm, regularly making good use of his space on set and relishing in his opportunities for physical theatre.
Megan Moore’s Julia is just as enthralling; her performance boasts a playful sexuality. She absolutely succeeds as a device to dehumanise The Cardinal. Of John Ireland’s conflicted Bosola, it is apparent by the end of the first act what an enormous task he has been given. As with a few of the supporting cast, he comes into his own towards the end, a strong highlight being a bitter and remorseful exchange with Elliot Lewis’ Ferdinand.
Director Sophie Barber chose to shorten the considerable length of Malfi to a more manageable duration, and aside from a single jarring off-stage exchange, the process is smooth. The bulk of the story remains traditional and it is therefore a shame that, outside of some fantastic death scenes, more of the cast don’t experiment within their roles. The Duchess’ two brothers in particular, with The Cardinal written as brooding and reserved to complement Ferdinand’s brash aggression, never seem to capture the interplay that makes them such a classically threatening duo. Nearly the whole cast, in fact, seem to resort all too often to shouting their lines, many of which could carry far greater weight and emotion in a softer tone. All this excess anger, particularly from the men, drowns out much of the talent that these actors clearly possess.
There is a hesitancy throughout the show with some of the actor’s line’s spoken to the stage floor. At times there is evidence of actors focusing more upon hitting their cues than using their bodies and stage presence effectively.
Despite this, the decision to begin the play with a completely original overture was a bold one that absolutely paid off. Composer Tom Rigby and his string musicians succeed in making the play come alive, accentuating the story’s plot points with splashes of well-timed melancholy and menace. Even the actors’ wardrobe is solid, immediately revealing the setting as something akin to the Sicilian Mafia. Surrounding it all is an impressive set, both vibrant and varied, though some LED lights rigged to flicker as coals in a fireplace are too often more distracting than immersive.
Nevertheless, the overall attention to detail is very much appreciated. It is thanks to this, not to mention a few strong performances and good directorial choices that SuTCo’s The Duchess of Malfi manages to do both its source material and Sheffield’s student theatre justice.