Off-message and on- with Malfi

20th May 2014

This coming Saturday BBC Television broadcasts both a documentary about the Jacobean theatre (on BBC Two, Saturday) and a recording of John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi (on BBC Four, Sunday) shot in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. In many ways this is very good news, not least because this is the first television production of a Jacobean tragedy since The Changeling back in 1993 and the first drama presented from a theatre in at least a decade. Bravo. But let’s start with some not-quite-so-good news, and a bit of a breath-taking quote from Malfi‘s star, Gemma Arterton.

In an interview in this week’s Radio Times, she speaks about how she thinks theatre doesn’t translate well to television, and she recalls her recent appearance at the BBC shindig for Tony Hall’s announcement of a new commitment to the arts. A clip from Malfi was the supposed highlight, after which she was interviewed on stage by Alan Yentob, when she enthused about the whole experience. Except that, as she now reveals, she was far from keen on the extract. ‘I had to do that thing at the BBC,’ she tells Radio Times. ‘When they showed a clip I was mortified. And then I had to go, “Oh yes, it’s great”.’

Moving on from Gemma’s off-message moment, let’s celebrate the BBC’s renewed interest in theatre on television. I was, however, rather underwhelmed by this production of The Duchess of Malfi (see my previous blog entry here, which also has a range of resources about the Playhouse and the staging). So I am fascinated to see how it transfers to television – and I intend to live-blog the presentation on Sunday. At least my seat will be more comfortable than the hard narrow bench on which I sat in the Playhouse pit.

Television has presented The Duchess of Malfi twice before. Before the Second World War Royston Morley produced a version, which was shown live on 17 January 1938 and not recorded. Catherine Lacey and Esmé Percy were the stars. And in October 1972 the strand Stage 2 offered a wonderful location-shot version directed by James MacTaggart with Eileen Atkins as the Duchess. I have written about this latter production for the Screen Plays blog and I would dearly love to release it on DVD, just as we have An Age of Kings. Frustratingly, BBC Worldwide’s unrealistic commercial expectations, and specifically the advance that is being demanded, make any further releases impossible.

Complementing Sunday’s screening, the revamped BBC Arts website has three fascinating extracts of previous Malfi’s, including one from that 1972 production. Pleasingly the site facilitates the legitimate embedding of these clips in other blogs such as this – even if we have to take with the extract itself far more graphical baggage than is in any way aesthetic.

The scene comes from near the top of the play, when the widowed Duchess in the most delicate and delightful way possible expresses her love for her steward, Antonio. A contrasting clip, showing the same scene, comes not from a television production of the play (although you wouldn’t quite know this from the way it is described on the BBC Arts site) but from a documentary about the 1980 production of the play at Manchester Royal Exchange directed by Adrian Noble.

And then there is a beautiful brief fragment of a Third Programme radio production by Donald McWhinnie, first broadcast on 16 May 1954.


  1. Arterton does go on to qualify what she says by explaining that she does understand how this is useful for people who can’t make it to the cinema and for educational purposes. I expect one of the problems if you work both on the stage and in the theatre is that the register of your performance changes depending on the setting and if you’re not used to seeing your “theatre” approach in the other setting, on screen, it probably is very disconcerting (and I’ve heard other actors voice similar concerns).

    It’s also presumably why, when stage production are transferred to television or radio its not in this filmed theatre format but reset so that performances do become more intimate (as you’d know!). But like I said, she does still seem to have some understanding that this has a duel role as a piece of drama and a recording of an event (which I do think is important in relation to capturing theatre performances) even if her approach to this hasn’t been helpful to the cause.

    • John Wyver says:

      Yes, you’re right of course. What I find interesting is that while the RSC actors had exactly this concern before the Live from Stratford-upon-Avon screenings in fact they found that it wasn’t a problem when we came to broadcast them. I’m really interested in this issue and I’m doing some short interviews with some of the Stratford cast to try and tease this out – and hope to publish something on that in a journal article.

  1. […] This is an important occasion, not least because there has been no Jacobean plays on tv since 1993 (more on the subject at John Wyver’s blog, and if you have the least bit of interest on how theatre translates into other media, you have to […]

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