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Reviewed by:
  • The Duchess of Malfi
  • Jenn Stephenson
The Duchess of Malfi Presented by the Stratford Festival of Canada at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. May 22–September 23, 2006. Directed by Peter Hinton. Design by Carolyn M. Smith. Lighting by Bonnie Beecher. Music and Sound by Peter Hannan. With Lucy Peacock (The Duchess of Malfi), Paul Essiembre (Ferdinand), Peter Donaldson (The Cardinal), Scott Wentworth (Daniel de Bosola), Shane Carty (Antonio Bologna), Steve Cumyn (Delio), Laura Condlin (Cariola), William Needles (Castruchio), Karen Robinson (Julia), Raymond O'Neill (The Marquis of Pescara), Walter Borden (Count Malateste), and others.

"Oh, this gloomy world! / In what a shadow or deep pit of darkness / Doth womanish and fearful mankind live!" Upon entering the theatre and encountering a perfectly still old woman dressed in black and seated beside a small ars moriendi painting featuring a candle and a skull, I could see that the final journey to death would be very much in the foreground of this production. Foreboding and malevolent in its darkness, Peter Hinton's Duchess of Malfi seemed to take its visual cues from Bosola's metaphorical description of the Stygian landscape of the human condition. This was a world with little softness and little light. What light there was appeared in shafts and fragments, hemmed in by hostile shadows. On the predominantly bare elongated thrust of the Patterson stage, costumes presented the main visual element. Designer Caroline Smith adhered to the expected seventeenth-century silhouette, adding black caps and black ruffs. However, the period look was given an ultramodern twist through the use of fabrics that looked oily and slick, catching the light on the [End Page 112]

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Figure 1.

From left: Paul Essiembre as Ferdinand, Peter Donaldson as The Cardinal, and Lucy Peacock as the Duchess of Malfi in the The Stratford Festival of Canada production of The Dutchess of Malfi. Photo by David Hou. Courtesy of the Stratford Festival of Canada Archives.

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folds. Light commingled with the blackness in hard surfaces as well. In his early scenes, Ferdinand appeared in an armor-like tunic constructed from hard, glossy black plastic, reminiscent of a carapace. Likewise, mirrored black flooring covered the usual oak deck, leaving only a small margin of bare wood running down the sides.

Pale grey face makeup combined with black eyelids, the faux paunches given to Bosola and Antonio, and the staging of a pilgrim as a double amputee elevated on a rich circular pouffe cum wheelchair, all contributed to the overall mood, pairing decay with excess, painting what director Hinton referred to in a video blog as a "corpse-bride aesthetic." This thematic connection between death and a sexuality both corrupted by morbidity and producing a tainted fertility permeated the production and heavily influenced visual design choices. Underscoring a subtle connection between the Duchess and the goddess Persephone, trapped in the underworld, in one scene pomegranates were placed in a dish on a table between the Duchess and her brothers. All the fruit was split open from being overripe and one had fallen from the dish onto the table, capturing in a single object this degenerate and doomed fertility already spoiling.

For illumination, crisp bright boxes of cold white light picked out the speakers, often lighting the actor only from one direction and leaving him or her partially in shadow for the audience on the opposite side. In the two scenes calling for darkness—Ferdinand's presentation of a severed hand to his sister and the accidental killing of Antonio—the production opted for complete blackouts. Hearing only the actors' voices until lights arrived to reveal the horrific acts served conventionally to augment the sensational effect, but also underscored the pervasive power of the dark. Vision and light feebly come to witness the horror too late to divert its course. Transfixed and impotent, we could only watch. The characters' struggle to bring light was manifested in the design of several hand-held light sources. Bosola's "dark lantern"—a metal cylinder pierced with holes—cast a fragmented light in the frantic night time cover-up of the birth of the Duchess's first son. Other...


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