The Duchess [of Malfi], new version by Zinnie Harris, after John Webster is currently at the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh (a Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and Citizens Theatre Glasgow co-production), and I think that this one will polarise people’s opinions of the work sharply with little middle ground to stand upon. For myself, I have genuine mixed emotions about this work, and find myself at times in all three places with it – good, bad, and that little space of middle ground.
This work is based on the original play by John Webster who based it loosely around real events some 100 years earlier. John Webster’s play premiered around 1614, and I have to admit that, although I am aware of the work, I have never seen any version of his original performed, so this review is based entirely upon this new version by Zinnie Harris.
With her new The Duchess [of Malfi], Zinnie Harris is making a clear statement about the manipulation, control and all too often sexual abuse of women in society, a theme very relevant in today’s #MeToo world. What is more interesting to me however is that over 400 years ago John Webster was making the very same statements. What is the sad part of both versions of this play is that over these 400 years so little has changed, and in many parts of society across the world, nothing at all has changed.
There have throughout history been two pillars of male control over women, financial and physical (often through sexual dominance or abuse), and these two powerful forces are at the heart of this work as the young, beautiful, and recently widowed Duchess now finds herself, like any widow of her time, in complete control of her own financial and personal destiny. These freedoms are not acceptable to her brothers, one of whom is her just slightly younger twin.
At approaching three hours (including interval), The Duchess is a long performance for contemporary theatre, but this does give us time to really get into this story and allow for some interesting character development. Act One introduces us swiftly to The Duchess and her controlling brothers, Ferdinand her twin (Angus Miller) and older brother, The Cardinal (George Costigan), both of whom are excellent in their respective roles. I like a lot of what Zinnie Harris has done here as this is an old work brought into contemporary times that is both stylish and full of sharp humour and cutting observations on male/female power dynamics. The use of music and songs work so well here when used too. From the outset, Kirsty Stuart gives us a strong, independent and powerful woman in her portrayal of The Duchess. The fact that she is drawn to the opposite of what many people would consider an alpha male in her steward (Antonio played by Graham Mackay-Bruce) also makes a clear and interesting statement on the stereotyped image of what any man should be.
Act Two here is a very different work to the first one though, an almost polar opposite as we move from the at times very light world of our Duchess in Act One to utter darkness and despair. The opening scene of Act Two is disturbing by any accounts, but there is an odd time shift of some years here between the two that is not accounted for in the script and at times seems contradictory to the story line. This is, however, where Adam Best as the loyal but murderous servant Bosola gets to really show an audience just what power as an actor he is capable of portraying. Oddly enough though there are moments towards the end of the opening scene where the two guards just seem too light and throw-away for the events around them.
At its very heart and core though, The Duchess is a story of its original times, of corruption, violence and murderous revenge, and here, as with the original period’s love for depicting these events on-stage, we are spared nothing and nothing is left to our imagination. The Duchess is a dark psychological and often violent work of theatre, and although there are clear warnings of this to anyone buying a ticket, this is where I start to have some issues with this work as we live in a world surrounded by endless and all too easily available violent images now, and this element of the work is not entertainment for me at a theatre. There are always three questions for me when violence is used on-stage. One, is it necessary to the story – well here it is integral to it; two – if required, how is it used, do we have to witness it or have it suggested to us (which we often imagine as far worse), and three, if used, how is it being used, for dramatic effect or sensationalism. I am not sure about the last two uses here, and also a little uncomfortable with the use of young children in some of these very violent scenes.
The Duchess of Malfi draws on stories rooted deep in our old Greek and Roman mythologies and twins are recurring elements in both and of course the works of John Webster, William Shakespeare and other writers of the period (if we ignore these sources though is there much original work left?). Here, the relationship between the Duchess and her twin is very dark from the beginning, yet still so much of what is driving the dynamics of their relationship is left unspoken and unexplored. With The Duchess’s older brother, the Cardinal, we may be accustomed to stories of abusive men in high church power now but, at the time, John Webster must have been taking more than a small risk with this character. Again though, has anything changed in 400 years?
Despite the performance length of this work, there are still areas of characters that I want to know more about – Cariola (Fletcher Mathers), waiting woman to The Duchess and Adam Tompa as Delio. Here though, Leah Walker as Julia, The Cardinal’s mistress, does seem to be less than comfortable with the content of some of her scenes.
There are many layers to this work, but it is the music of composer Oguz Kaplangi and the performance of Eleanor Kane (musician) that I found staying with me after the performance. Whatever your personal views on The Duchess may be though, it is a powerful and at times disturbing work of theatre, and the applause at the end from the audience has more in the end to say than any review can.
Review by Tom King