A group of music stands stood arranged on the Red Bull’s thrust stage, and actors emerged to sit on either side of the stage, ready to play. The concert-style environment offered a fascinating set-up for a reading of Duchess of Malfi that made intricate use of its performance constraints. Filmed live with multiple cameras, and directed sensitively by Jesse Berger, this event marked an interesting hybrid; where Red Bull produced several outstanding Zoom-based readings with actors in isolation during the pandemic, this was the first time I’d seen them livestream an in-person reading. Further, the choice to stage this not as a fully blocked script-in-hand reading but as a kind of concert reading interestingly freed up the actors’ hands and bodies to find surprising intimacy, even as the subtle blocking choices stressed the play’s interest in exposure and surveillance.
Right from the start, the production paired Antonio (Alfredo Narcisco) and Delio (Bhavesh Patel) with an onstage announcer (Raphael Nash Thompson) who read stage directions. The presence of Thompson announcing actions that were often partly (but rarely fully) rendered by the actors turned him into a third observer alongside the textually rooted noting done by Antonio and Delio; the music stands became lecterns, a locus of explanation and interpretation. But the subtle use of different sides of the stage suggested something competitive, too; Antonio and Delio stuck to stage right, while Bosola (Matthew Rauch) and the Cardinal (credited as Derek Smith, although an announcement at the start suggested it may have been a different performer whose name I missed) tended towards stage left. Into the middle of this, almost always dead-center, came the Duchess (Kelley Curran), who may have had her own lectern, but was very much looked upon rather than looking.
The crisp, clear reading was divorced from time or place (actors wore their own clothes, with occasional signifiers such as Bosola draping a cloak over his head when confronting the Duchess ahead of her murder), though cut-glass Standard American accents privileged the elite figures at the play’s heart. Curran’s Duchess, in particular, was classy and wry, able to smile without shattering her dignity, and not intimidated by anyone. During her wooing of Antonio, she kissed him passionately, and when he mentioned her brothers she waved away any idea of them dismissively. Narcisco, meanwhile, worked to demonstrate the effect that the Duchess had on others; when he realized what his putting-on of her ring signified, he sank to the floor, collapsing his music stand with him, in shock.
The Duchess’s centrality allowed for the men who attacked her to approach her from the edges. Lorenzo Pisoni’s Ferdinand had the privilege of moving anywhere he wanted in the space. He was entitled from the start, shutting down the suitors who laughed at the wrong place with absolute disdain. His ability to shift from comically explosive (his fantasy of the strong-thighed bargeman emerged with difficulty, working up to articulate the image in his mind until it erupted from him) to quietly sinister and manipulative was often chilling. When coming to the Duchess in her chamber, he quietly held out the knife to her, but as she tried to take it, he pulled it away and began taunting her, refusing to let her take any agency. Later, during the dark scene, Ferdinand placed his own hand smilingly on the Duchess’s shoulder to represent the dead man’s hand; the Duchess grasped for the hand with relief, smiling, but it took her a long time to realize what was happening while Ferdinand stepped away, still smiling,
The first half of the production worked through the various set-ups and established character. There were cuts – the Old Lady was gone, as was the Cardinal’s ascension to military status – but the text remained relatively full. Bosola did a lot of the heavy lifting, and the production worked to build in props business such as Antonio dropping the piece of paper with the horoscope while his nose was bleeding for Bosola to pick up (interestingly, the idea that Bosola hadn’t worked out who the father was yet was played for laughs at Bosola’s expense). Amelia Pedlow’s Julia also emerged as a fascinating figure. Next to the Cardinal, she was unusually nervy, a bit unsettled and jumpy behind her coyness, and taken off guard by the Cardinal suddenly kissing her forcefully. When she met with Delio, she was hyper-anxious, waving her arms about in faux greeting while keeping him at a distance. These scenes beautifully established the Cardinal’s quiet threat and authority; his constant hand-wringing perhaps implying the potential for guilt, but just as much suggesting his urge to be doing something with those hands.
The second half steered further into the spectacle, with some graceful and evocative stagings of violence. Here, the extension of the playing space off the stage worked well to transcend the material conditions of the stage itself. The Madmen stood up amid the bleachers, shouting their ravings into the space. The executioners of the Duchess stood at the sides for the murder, pulling on an invisible rope as the Duchess fell in the middle. Cariola (Shirine Babb) had a single executioner, also offstage, and she fell into his arms and was dragged straight offstage, leaving the Duchess’s body alone. The emblematic staging made the Duchess’s body an important focal point, first for the quite funny argument between a furious Bosola and a quivering, penitent Ferdinand that followed, and then for a moving final moment of death as Bosola cradled the Duchess’s body. A smile passed over the Duchess’s face as she heard that Antonio was alive, and her whispered ‘Mercy’ felt like a grace she had received, rather than a plea.
Pisoni’s use of the argument with Bosola as a turning point for Ferdinand worked well to set up his throwing himself around the stage as the werewolf later, but in general, Act 5 felt a little bit messier. There were powerful moments here – the Duchess making circuits of the stage as Echo, repeating back Antonio’s lines to him; Antonio bleeding out on the stage and his body being left visible; and a lovely fight moment in which Ferdinand caught Bosola on the rebound from stabbing his brother, one final accidental death among the rest. While the reading worked to establish the plot points, though, the relative lack of onstage spectacle brought home just how much of a shift this play enacts after Act 4, and how much the play tears down in its final few scenes. As the Cardinal brought down his music stand as he fell, the emblematic destruction marked the space of disruption, while still keeping it clean.
The clarity and musicality of this concert-style reading brought out the dignity of Webster’s central figures beautifully, while the disruption of the concert setting captured the violence that destroys that dignity. In doing so, Berger’s style of staged reading offered valuable insight into the play’s dramaturgical structure, served by and serving the powerful performances of the company.