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Published on Sunday, 28 August 2011

4 stars

Bedlam Theatre (venue website)
22-27 Aug, 11:05am-12:05pm
Reviewed by Eve Nicol

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

The transposing of The Duchess of Malfi from the 14th century Italian courts to a 1940s jazz cafe is done with surprising ease and clarity in Offshoots' production. A classic movie aesthetic brings out additional layers to characters' personalities, and all are excellently realised.

The brutish hit-man Bosola is maybe best of all – a film noir anti-hero, with big shoulders and brooding eyes, he's played excellently by Tom Bailey. Ellie Coots as the Duchess cuts a suitably beautiful, striking figure, in a sweeping red dress and Hollywood curls. It is understandable that the Duchess' brothers would feel intimidated by this powerful woman in control of her sexuality.

The house band, which has been ubiquitous amongst young companies' work this festival, is well-placed in Malfi. They add moody atmosphere and toe-tapping excitement, and are able to unobtrusively narrate the gaps left in this trim abridged version of Webster's text.

The mysterious masked chorus, who appear as the threat to the household increases, are a magnificent touch. Black morph suits render three of the cast hauntingly unrecognisable. They observe the action, simmering under white fedoras and immaculate trench coats. Violent and terrifying, they’re also exceptionally cool, striking a pose against the bar or at a cafe table. It is a hugely impressive device, surprising but instantly familiar – an imaginative choice that lifts the mood the production from mere mimicry of movie tropes, to inspired expressive design.

But there are aspects of the production that frustrate. The club chanteuse – an excellent extension of the Duchess' sexuality and expression – is masked by a piano throughout. There is a proliferation of fake smoking going on; the obviously until cigarettes add an unwelcome sanitary feeling to the otherwise suitably grimy surroundings. The billowing clouds from the smoke machine unfortunately tended to get a touch out of control and cause the scene look more like a train station than a club, more Brief Encounter than Casablanca. Either way, the mood is right, the classic film imagery heavily evoked.

There is a standout performance from Michael Cole as Ferdinand, but the overall quality of performance is mixed. Though some may be stronger than others, the entire cast succeed in making their lines completely understandable. The action unfolds quickly and clearly, an excellent trait for any company tackling Renaissance drama.

Malfi is peppered with triumphant moments of conceptual and directorial flair. There is much about the production that can be improved on, but a concise synthesis of music, mood, style and characterisation makes this a highly commendable re-imagining of an established classic.

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