Malfi light and noir

25th May 2014

For all sorts of reasons, I’m really looking forward to tonight’s BBC Four broadcast of The Duchess of Malfi recorded at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. First off, John Webster’s revenge tragedy is one of my favourite plays (along with his other masterpiece The White Devil). Then there’s the fact that this is the first television broadcast of a play from a theatre for at least a decade – and the first Jacobean drama to be seen on the small screen since The Changeling back in 1993. And of course, since I am deeply involved in translating stage to screen producing the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcasts, I have a strong professional interest as well. I saw the production on stage and I plan to live-blog this evening’s broadcast. All of which meant that I was also fascinated to see James Shapiro’s curtain-raiser documentary last night, The Mysterious Mr Webster.

James Walton for the Telegraph has already suggested that Shapiro’s film is ‘a strange mix of solid history and often wild speculation’, and while I think that’s over-stating the case I did feel uneasy about parts of it. The history is solid enough, not least because we encounter an array of knowledgeable experts speaking about Webster and early 17th-century theatre. There are contributions from Farah Karim-Cooper (make-up), Jenny Tiramani (costumes), David Lindley (political context) and Keith McGowan (music) as well as the insights of Harriet Walter and Simon Russell Beale, who played the Duchess and Bosola in the RSC’s 1989 production. Not that any of them hold the screen for long, for we flit rather breathlessly from one topic to the next.

James Shapiro explores the new Playhouse theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe, goes to Worcester College to look at the 17th century drawings that inspired its designs, outlines the plot of Malfi, talks us through what little is known of Webster’s life, speaks about revenge tragedy, muses on sex, status, religion, depression and death, and – perhaps most fruitfully – suggests that the play has a profound sense of nostalgia for the time, more than a decade before its performance, when England was still ruled by a woman, Queen Elizabeth.

All well and good, but it is dressed up as a ‘literary detective’ framework that adds little, and there are occasional sleights of hand that could have been subjected to a little more rigour. The Duchess of Malfi was written for the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, and James Shapiro describes the Playhouse as ‘Blackfriars Theatre re-imagined’. Indeed, he says, looking out at the shimmering new auditorium, Webster wrote The Duchess of Malfi ‘for a space just like this’. Yet the Globe’s own leaflet about the Playhouse project says ‘no plans for the Blackfriars playhouse are known and so we cannot be sure of its design’.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of the film is the way it feels the need to impose a kind of Nordic noir visual look for much of the time. Having produced the films for the Shakespeare’s London Theatres project last year, I know only too well how little visual archival material exists for this topic. But do we need an actor (Ben Addis, above) skulking around in flicking, fragmentary, superimposed out-of-focus images, cut with BIG close-ups of blood and knife blades?

Then again we get to see the brief glimpses of numerous shots from the Malfi in-theatre recording, with next-to-no extended dialogue sequences. It is all a little as if the programme does not quite have the confidence in the visual language of the theatrical elements and instead believes it needs a cinematic grammar to keep an audience interested.

Intriguingly, this sense of missing Malfi itself also comes across from the trails that the BBC has produced for tonight’s broadcast. The punchy montage features audio from the production, shots of the empty theatre, graphics and presenter Andrew Marr being a bit shout-y, before we see a non-speaking shot of star Gemma Arterton and then the cast taking a bow. Let’s hope that the play and performance make more of an impact from 8pm this evening on BBC Four.

This is not that trail, but rather a 3-minute excerpt from the production courtesy – as the REALLY REALLY BIG graphics tell you – of the new BBC Arts webite.

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