Feuding Families Take Center Stage

LONDON — Family life doesn’t have much going for it in “The Duchess of Malfi,” the blood bath of a play from John Webster in which corps...

LONDON — Family life doesn’t have much going for it in “The Duchess of Malfi,” the blood bath of a play from John Webster in which corpses are piled high by a conclusion that is merciless even by 17th-century standards.

Centering on an ill-fated Italian noblewoman and her two venomous brothers, this favorite of the London stage has resurfaced in a sleek, stylish production from the director Rebecca Frecknall, at the Almeida Theater through Jan. 25.

Frecknall made her name on this stage with a highly abstract production of “Summer and Smoke” in 2018 that made its way to the West End. The similarly stripped-back, installation-art feel to her latest production is of a piece with the Almeida’s Continental aesthetic, as filtered through such English directors as Robert Icke, a former Almeida artistic associate.

Much of Chloe Lamford’s set — itself ready for display in Tate Modern — is given over to a glass box that makes the characters into human specimens on display. Microphones appear on cue, and chapter headings let us know where we are in Webster’s labyrinthine narrative.

The characters tumble toward the abyss, as Lydia Wilson’s transgression-prone Duchess lingers in view of the audience even after Webster’s text has relegated her to oblivion: The onstage structure becomes a transparent mausoleum whose inhabitants won’t be so easily dispatched.

And so the play’s women become silent witnesses from beyond the grave to the bloodshed of the men, who behave like beasts. (One of them — Jack Riddiford’s Ferdinand, the more outwardly crazed of the brothers — starts thinking he’s a wolf.) It’s a play that honors its author’s near-contemporary, Shakespeare, while mining even further depths of depravity.

Politics, and not (thank heavens) the threat of spilled blood, weigh heavily on a father and his daughter in “Snowflake,” the Mike Bartlett play at the Kiln Theater through Jan. 25. The timing means that Clare Lizzimore’s lit fuse of a production will finish just a week before Britain is set to leave the European Union, as Brexit, after many delays, finally takes place.

Andy (Elliot Levey), the 48-year-old widower and father who gets the entire first act to himself, is pro-Leave, though he’s far more concerned about reconnecting with his estranged daughter than with matters of state, at least at first. That explains his jittery anticipation as he paces a church hall in the run-up to Christmas, in the hope that the child he hasn’t seen in three years will make a festive-season appearance to her still-devoted father. (Her affection for him, we quickly realize, is more ambivalent.)

After the intermission, Bartlett brings into the fray the errant Maya (a spiky Ellen Robertson). Her conciliation-minded girlfriend, Natalie (Amber James), arrives first so as to smooth the way for the set-to that follows. Maya, it comes as no surprise to discover, isn’t just emphatically pro-Remain but views Andy as a relic from a bygone era: a man whose enthusiasm for James Bond and “The X Files” consigns him to an uncritical past that the culturally hyper-aware Maya wants no part of. “The X Files,” to her, is merely “two white people scared of aliens.”

Bartlett has explored such competing mind-sets before, in the richer, more nuanced “Albion,” which will return to the Almeida next month. By comparison, “Snowflake” seems slight: an exercise in theater-as-showdown, but one that, to its credit, values both points of view.

Bartlett’s neat title refers to the wintry conditions of the holiday season when the play is set, as well as to those overly emotive, fragile members of the younger generation to which Maya and Natalie belong. And Levey, a reliable ensemble player too rarely given such a hefty part, tears into the play’s lead role as the well-meaning parent who can’t budge a child’s implacable resolve.

Can these two find a shared way forward, and will the divided country they inhabit? Bartlett suggests only that identity politics alone won’t take you very far. Within families, love is helpful, too.

That’s assuming, of course, that you know who your family is. The revelation of an unknown family member signals the provocative starting point of “The Arrival,” at the Bush Theater through Jan 18. This 70-minute two-hander is the bristling playwriting debut of Bijan Sheibani, the well-established theater director whose National Theater production of “Barber Shop Chronicles” traveled to New York last month, and who doubles as his own keen-eyed director here.

Set on an unadorned, circular stage that suggests a gladiatorial ring, the play introduces two British Iranian brothers, five years apart in age, who meet for the first time. Tom (Scott Karim), 35, the older, was put up for adoption before Samad (Irfan Shamji) was born.

Greetings have barely been exchanged before the brothers make clear their differences: Samad is more expensively educated and bookish, while the leaner, more impulsive Tom gives off an energy that Samad can’t match.

Told across 16 scenes, the last of which pushes events forward several years, the play has the feel of an uneasy mating dance.

Both performers are terrific. Shamji’s eyes hint at a reserve not easily cracked, while Karim’s volatility keeps pace with a restless sound design from Gareth Fry that suggests an amplified heartbeat. In the end, their arrival in each other’s lives merely leads to a further departure. The two may share DNA, but any emotional bond remains poignantly out of reach.

The Duchess of Malfi. Directed by Rebecca Frecknall. Almeida Theater, through Jan. 25.
Snowflake. Directed by Clare Lizzimore. Kiln Theater, through Jan. 25.
The Arrival. Directed by Bijan Sheibani. Bush Theater, through Jan 18.

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Newsrust: Feuding Families Take Center Stage
Feuding Families Take Center Stage
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