Enemy families take center stage

LONDON – Family life doesn’t have much to do with “The Duchess of Malfi,” the bloodbath of a John Webster work in which the bodies are stacked in a conclusion that is ruthless even by seventeenth-century standards.

Focusing on an unfortunate Italian noble woman and her two poisonous brothers, this favorite from the London stage has resurfaced in an elegant and stylish production by director Rebecca Frecknall, at the Teatro Almeida until January 25.

Frecknall made a name for himself on this stage with a very abstract production of “Summer and Smoke” in 2018 that reached the West End. The sensation of installation art, equally stripped, of his latest production is a piece with the continental aesthetic of Almeida, filtered through English directors such as Robert Icke, a former artistic associate of Almeida.

Much of Chloe Lamford’s set, ready to be displayed in Tate Modern, is delivered to a glass box that turns the characters into human specimens on display. Microphones appear at the right time and chapter titles let us know where we are in Webster’s labyrinthine narrative.

The characters fall into the abyss, while the duchess prone to transgression of Lydia Wilson remains in sight of the audience even after Webster’s text has relegated it to oblivion: the structure on the stage becomes a transparent mausoleum whose inhabitants will not be so easy to dispatch.

And so, the women of the play become silent witnesses from beyond the grave to the bloodshed of men, who behave like beasts. (One of them, Ferdinand of Jack Riddiford, the craziest of the brothers, begins to think he is a wolf). It is a work that pays tribute to Shakespeare, almost contemporary of its author, while exploiting even more depths of depravity.

After intermission, Bartlett brings the wandering Maya to the fray (a pointed Ellen Robertson). His conciliatory-minded girlfriend, Natalie (Amber James), arrives first to pave the way for the set that follows. Maya, it is not surprising to discover, not only is he emphatically pro-Remains, but sees Andy as a relic of a bygone era: a man whose enthusiasm for James Bond and “The X Files” consigns him to an uncritical past. Maya, culturally hyperconscious, does not want to participate. “The X Files,” for her, is simply “two white people with fear of aliens.”

Bartlett has explored such competitive mentalities before, in the richest and most nuanced “Albion,” who will return to Almeida next month. In comparison, “Snowflake” seems mild: a theater exercise as a confrontation, but which, to his credit, values ​​both points of view.

Bartlett’s clear title refers to the winter conditions of the Christmas season when the work is established, as well as the too emotional and fragile members of the younger generation to which Maya and Natalie belong. And Levey, a reliable ensemble performer who is rarely given such a strong part, enters the main role of the game as the well-intentioned father who cannot give in to a child’s implacable resolution.

Can these two find a shared path forward, and the divided country in which they live? Bartlett suggests only that identity policy alone will not take you far. Within families, love is also useful.

Greetings have barely been exchanged before the brothers clarify their differences: Samad is more expensive and polite, while the thinnest and most impulsive Tom emits an energy that Samad cannot match.

Counted in 16 scenes, the last of which drives events forward several years, the play has the feeling of an awkward mating dance.

Both artists are great. Shamji’s eyes point to a reserve that does not crack easily, while Karim’s volatility keeps pace with a restless Gareth Fry sound design that suggests an amplified beat. In the end, his arrival at the life of the other simply leads to a new game. The two can share DNA, but any emotional bond remains poignantly out of reach.

The Duchess of Malfi. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall. Almeida Theater, until January 25.
Snowflake. Directed by Clare Lizzimore. Kiln Theater, until January 25.
The arrival. Directed by Bijan Sheibani. Bush Theater, until January 18.

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