The Duchess Of Malfi (rating 4/5)
Zinnie Harris’s new play is a reimagining of John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy, written over 400 years ago and which took its inspiration from the true story of Giovanna D’Aragona, the Duchess of Amalfi, one hundred years before that. Harris takes the story and relocates it to a time that could be today and a place that is seemingly Italy, but, with the use of accent-free casting and an industrial stage set, could be almost anywhere.
It is heavyweight theatre not for the faint-hearted and serves as a complete contrast to recent hit Local Hero, emphasising the diversity of the schedule at the Lyceum. It’s fair to say it will not be to everyone’s taste, but for its target audience it is a compelling production that updates the original and finds a contemporary relevance in the text.
The play begins as the recently widowed Duchess is taking stock of her new found freedom and wealth. Her marriage to the Duke had not been a happy one. He was a bore who offered her nothing sexually. However, the marriage did give her brothers a higher social status than they previously had, and they do not want to lose this. The toxic patriarchy means that they see this as their right, while the status of women means that as long as the Duchess remains a widow, their position is secure.
The Duchess is not prepared to play this role, however. Blessed with youth, self awareness and the wealth she has inherited, she wants to be free to determine her own destiny and live the life she wants. She chooses to have a relationship with her steward Antonio and the two marry in secret with only a maid as a witness.
The problem is not simply that she has remarried, or that she has chosen to marry someone of a lower social status, it is that she has chosen to take control of her life and make decisions free from the constraints that her brothers, Ferdinand and The Cardinal, would impose on her.
They enlist Bosola, a murderer in the service of The Cardinal, to spy on the Duchess and find out what she is doing. Working his way into her service, he discovers her marriage and pregnancy, as she makes the fatal mistake of trusting him. This sets up the unrelenting tragedy that dominates a bloody and disturbing second act.
The Cardinal is ruthless in his pursuit of power while also cold and sadistic to his mistress. Ferdinand’s reasons for wanting the Duchess to continue mourning go beyond financial self-interest. He is the Duchess’s twin, and as he fights against the thought of her being initimate with someone else he longs to return to the closeness they shared in the womb.
The extremes of the script are matched by the directorial decisions made by Harris, who is director as well as writer. Large screen images of executions, screeching sounds and stark settings, combine to make it a merciless world of corruption where the Duchess is powerless but unrepentant, sending out a message against male oppression.
Kirsty Stuart as the Duchess delivers a performance that captures her unapologetic nature combined with the knowledge that she has nothing to apologise for and defiance in the face of the obstacles she faces. However, the role of Antonio, played by Graham Mackay-Bruce is less well defined, and this shifts the focus away from the doomed lovers and more fully on to the Duchess’ right to choose her destiny. The themes of religious and courtly corruption and cruelty in Webster’s play are also seen primarily through this focus.
This delivers the message behind the reimagining, but at the same time takes away some of the richness and depth in Webster’s script, while anyone coming new to the story may also struggle to fully understand the extent of the brother’s objection to the Duchess’ desire to put her mourning behind her, or the reasons the Duchess is prepared to lose her life. Nonetheless, it is a bold and powerful reinvention for a modern audience.
Lyceum, Edinburgh until 8 June