The Duchess of Malfi, Review | Masque Theatre, Northampton

Northampton’s oldest amateur theatre group present John Webster’s classic revenge tragedy at The Holy Sepulchre until 6 April.

The Cardinal (Martin Williams), The Duchess (Nicola Osborne) and Ferdinand (Matthew Fell) – Photo by Becki Cockcroft

Northampton based ‘Masque Theatre’ take on John Webster’s deliciously dark ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, the renowned Revenge Tragedy that has delighted and disgusted audiences since 1613. Directed by John Myhill and performed in the The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, this beautiful round Norman Church in the heart of Northampton town made for the perfect setting for the haunting events to unfold.

Set in Italy’s Malfi, the play centres on The Duchess (Nicola Osborne) who has been recently widowed. She however does not wish to become complacent with her widow status; she wishes to love again much to the anguish of her two brothers – Ferdinand (Matthew Fell) and The Cardinal (Martin Williams). They, with very little consideration of their sister’s desires, are driven by their greed for wealth and power therefore attempt to dissuade The Duchess from ever remarrying. She is driven neither by money, power nor a desire to please her brothers but by her love for Antonio (James Lickman), a gentleman of much lower social status than herself. Daniel di Bosola (Alex Rex), a former servant to the Cardinal, is sent to by the distrusting Ferdinand to watch and report back on the Duchess’ whereabouts, more specifically her whereabouts with her suitors. Bosola often provides a running commentary, with a large hint of cynicism, through audience address which Rex did with ease and often with hilarity.

What is most striking is the stark comparison between the moral high grounds of The Duchess and her brothers. Not only are Ferdinand and The Cardinal corrupted by power, their behaviour towards love and lust is extremely skewed – particularly noticeable when shown in parallel to the Duchess who seeks nothing more but a loving, monogamous partnership. Ferdinand’s jealousy is driven by his incestuous feelings towards his sister while the Cardinal, a seemingly respected religious figure within the court, enjoys wooing the married Julia (Becki Cockcroft). This apparent toxic masculinity is a driving factor within the play. Cockcroft’s Julia was wonderfully charismatic, providing a contrasting energy to the coldness of Williams’ Cardinal.

Nicola Osborne was beautifully engaging as the Duchess, a character which could easily be played as mopey and feeble, she brought out the strength in a woman who has little left to find strength in other than Antonio. Her partnership with Antonio was honestly intimate and touching, James Lickman equally as engaging and charismatic. Both actors portrayals were thoughtful and genuine, they provided humanity in a play which questions human morals. The eighteen strong cast overall gave good performances however I felt as though some moments would have benefited from being stripped back, some scenes lacked honesty as there was a tendency at times to ‘over act’. The 5 act play also felt a bit slow a times; heavy in dialogue, I felt as though a pickup in pace would have perhaps been more gripping.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a brilliant choice of performance space, a breath taking venue; the round, intricately tiled performance space was intimate and allowed for interesting staging. The dance sequence that preceded each act also worked well in the round and the music choice of ‘Theme from Earthshaker’ by Cabaret Voltaire was effective with its bizarre blend of both medieval and modern. I appreciated how during this sequence, focus was still placed on the differing status’ and relationships between the characters through nuanced body language and eye contact. The play touches heavily on religion and in particular sin, questioning what defines sin and therefore what drives us to sin, making the church the ideal backdrop to the themes and questions raised.

Samantha McNern’s Lighting Design was also extremely well thought out and atmospheric, it worked beautifully in the space. The beautiful gothic arched windows allowed light to flood in during the opening acts but appropriately the church darkened as the play’s tone darkened.

Masque Theatre’s The Duchess of Malfi continues its run at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre until Saturday 6 April. Make sure to pre-book your tickets for an evening of disgust, deceit and danger.

Visit to book. £9 each, £8 concessions. Follow the group on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for the latest updates.


About Megan Raynor 8 Articles
Megan is an actor-musician originally from Northampton. She is a recent graduate of Surrey-based theatre company Peer Productions. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, watching live theatre, going to gigs and befriending dogs.