The Duchess (of Malfi)

There's little doubt that The Duchess of Malfi has become the most popular and successful work written by the English Jacobean playwright John Webster. Its concise narrative, complex characters and at-times beautifully poetic language has ensured that the play continues to be revived across the centuries. As a result, it remains one of the finest examples of that oh-so-blood-soaked genre, the 'Revenge Tragedy,' beaten in fame only by Shakespeare's Hamlet.

This is a somewhat dispiriting and brutal story of a liberated woman brought down by the untrusting, fear-filled men around her.

Whether or not Zinnie Harris’s adaptation, The Duchess (of Malfi), will feature so highly in her own oeuvre is a different question. There is much to praise here. For example, she deftly shows us the flowering of the now-widowed Duchess of Malfi, when Kirsty Stuart, a lady in red, finds her voice at a microphone under the spotlight. If much of Webster's poetics are lost in Harris's more modern dialogue, there are undoubted moments of modern equivalence, raising a smile if not a tear; "He strikes me as a common arsehole of the masculine kind," being just one example.

Harris does tidy up some of the rough edges in Webster’s original, not least in making the Duchess the mother of twins - rather than three children - over a period of several years. It's within the characters that she turns the up dial; with the guilt and anger of the Duchess's two brothers, the "imposter syndrome" felt by her new husband Antonio (Graham Mackay-Bruce) and the guilt of hired killer Bosola (Adam Best). Dressing her characters in something approaching modern dress, Harris sacrifices period verisimilitude but gains dramatically from the current context of the #metoo movement.

Make no mistake, this is a somewhat dispiriting and brutal story of a liberated woman brought down by the untrusting, fear-filled men around her. If Angus Miller feels slightly not yet up to the hard challenge of showing us the psychological breakdown of the Duchess’s twin, Ferdinand, it’s perhaps because he shares so much stage-time with George Costigan. As their elder brother (an abusive self-serving Cardinal) Costigan gives us a text-book example of how in acting less is so often more; There’s one line in particular which he deliciously downplays with both humorous and horrifying effect.

This is a modern, stylish production playing off against Tom Piper’s off-white minimalist, multi-level set, and the use of brutally bold video projections (part newsreel, part stage description) is loud and sharp. As a cathartic tragedy, it’s by no means easy viewing, even with Harris’s use of her murdered female characters, washed clean of blood, as a chorus in the later acts. But, on the plus side, and unlike the original, Harris at least leaves us some hope.

Reviews by Paul F Cockburn

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The Blurb

"You should know. I sing at parties, I wear colourful dresses, I am headstrong, I won't wear my hair up because you say I should, or do this because you prefer it, in fact I might do the other just to be contrary, but I am utterly and always myself." Webster's The Duchess of Malfi is the most thrilling and chilling of the Jacobean revenge tragedies, an exploration of male rage and female resistance as two brothers try and control their sister, block her marriage and repress her agency with fatal results. Webster’s dark tale of bloody treachery is fuelled and retooled by Zinnie Harris’ insight, vivid imagery and dazzling prose which have been so heralded in her great adaptation of The Oresteia, This Restless House, (Citizens Theatre and National Theatre of Scotland) and her more recent versions of Ibsen’s The Master Builder (West Yorkshire Playhouse) and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros.

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