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The Duchess of Malfi – Vancouver

Posted on July 15, 2014 at 6:35 pm by David Jones — Make a Comment


Art is subjective. One-person’s sublime evening out is another person’s torture. I want to celebrate what went into creating the show and how I felt the audience reacted. Then I will allow my cynical Uncle Max to have a short retort. I will also post the cost of tickets.

The thought is you can then decide is the show is to your taste and worth the money they are asking. Does Uncle Max talk you out of it? Or did the rest of the review convince you to go? Let me know in the comments.

 The Duchess of Malfi by The Ensemble Theatre Company

 Jacobean Tragedy on display.

The Ensemble Theatre Company presents its second season of intelligent plays with large casts. The company is a co-op venture and many of the actors work a lot in film and TV and this summer festival is chance for them to really sink their teeth into more meaty material.

They tackle three shows and present them in repertory with company members appearing in two on average. This year they are doing the contemporary plays Cripple of Inishmaan – the dark Irish comedy written in 1996 by Matin McDonagh and The Normal Heart – an AIDS drama written in 1985 by Larry Kramer and the Jacobean Tragedy The Duchess of Malfi written in 1613 or 1614 by John Webster.

I am by no means an expert on the genre but these “revenge” plays filled with their gore and death seem to be a reaction to more reverent or pious time in theatre history. Much like Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, there are graphic scenes that must have repulsed and thrilled audiences of the time. There is also likely something very cathartic for the audience of the time as the plays depict or at least certainly this one depicts corruption in church figures, political figures as well as the upper classes leading to the death of most of them. Killed on stage; necks snapped, poisoned, strangled and of course stabbed. There is also a severed body parts brought on stage. Cool.

The production design has to come up with a set that will work for all three shows designer John Bessette has created a series of gray platforms, that stick into the playing area at angles with a couple of archways that can be decorated for the different shows.

Lighting design by Darren Hales is shadowy and sinister. The period costumes including military wear effectively realized by Chanel McCartney and Shelby Page.

Director Tariq Leslie has a huge challenge with this heightened prose and the multitude of characters and did an incredible job of editing the script down and amalgamating. He also creates some chilling stage pictures.

The story is that a wealthy duchess has fallen in love and marries a man beneath her status and class. This enrages her brother and while he wants to punish her for the shame she has brought there are others who want to use the scandal for political gain. Throw in a corrupt Cardinal and self-serving courtesan and you got a whole bunch of people out to destroy innocent love.

Although for reasons not quite clear to me nobody does anything until after she gives birth to her third child, but then things get crazy and people go mad and as already stated a lot of people die (but not until Act Two).

Some of the actors handle this verbose dialogue with an almost operatic zeal as fits the flowery prose. One of the highlights is The Duchess herself – the always dynamic Alison Raine. No one plays people of privilege and status better. She always brings lusty humanity and joy with a heartbreaking naïveté when suddenly denied. She is a compelling and radiant presence on stage.

As her pious brother Fredinard played with contained fury by Paul Herbert he is commanding and tender, with such a sense of duty and morality that it tears him apart.

All of the cast is to be commended for the work they are doing to bring this and the other shows to the stage. They are not getting paid working only for a profit share (if there is one) so their love of the material is clear.

What a rare opportunity to see a Jacobean Tragedy.


“What the hell kind of show was that? They talked and talked AND TALKED and  I had no idea what was going on or who half the people were. When the insane people came out gashing their teeth being lead around on leashes I thought it was The Walking Dead redux.

I have heard some people say how these kind of plays were the Quentin Tarantino shows of their day, okay sure, maybe, if he was on Prozac, and a 100 years old, and blind and underwater. After awhile all the deaths became so uninteresting I wanted to scream “Faster Pussycat Kill, Kill!” 


Obviously it’s a great fit for theatre aficionados who want to see a rarely produced historical play.

People who want to support locally produced theatre by a cooperative of artists.


The tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students and seniors. You can also buy a pass for all three shows for $60.
There are some opportunities for volunteers to see work and see the show for free.

I attended opening night and it was about 50% full and at the end of the over two-hour show they gave warm applause.


David C. Jones