The Duchess (of Malfi)

Zinnie Harris (after John Webster)
Lyceum Theatre Company
Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

Adam Best as Bosola and Kirsty Stuart as The Duchess Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Angus Miller as Ferdinand Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic
Fletcher Mathers, Eleanor Kane, Georgette McMillan, Kirsty Stuart Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

It's hard to imagine a more apt play for the current political climate than John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. The tale, based loosely on the life of Giovanna d'Aragona, has all the facets that are foremost in the topical debates of today: gender politics, misogyny, corruption and sexual deviancy in the church and the agency of women over their own lives and bodies.

The shocking tragedy finds Kirsty Stuart as The Duchess, at the end of mourning for her dead and distinctly unloved husband, being harassed by her two brothers. They fear for the besmirching of the family name should she act too independently, yet she scoffs playfully, only igniting their ire further. But the lady isn't planning on quietly retiring, or being forced into another arranged marriage. Instead, in secret, she marries her steward Antonio (Graham Mackay-Bruce), has twins by him. It's only then that treachery is revealed and matters spiral through a hellish descent into cruel death and bitter vengeance.

In reinterpreting this piece, Zinne Harris has opted to cut the excess fat and deliver a concise and streamlined version of the story updated from its 16th century setting to a more abstract and timeless reality. In doing so, she has also pared down and combined many of the secondary characters and cut out much of Webster's focus on the politics and social stratification. It's a wise choice, considering the length and complexity of the language at play in the original, as is her deft rewording of the piece into modern prose while retaining the essence of Webster's language.

But it's more than a simple rewording of the play. While Webster's original was a cutting tragedy wagging a finger at myriad issues, Harris's focus is quite certainly on women and the way they are treated, as the men in the story are all embodiments of some failing or another. Although the Duchess is a feisty, strong but likeable woman, her brothers Ferdinand (Angus Miller) and the Cardinal (George Costigan) are pits of paranoid anger and dictatorial depravity. Her secret husband Antonio is loveable and loyal but a man of inaction and dithering, while his friend Delio (Adam Tompa) has a huge heart but cowers from every need and commitment to it. The only male character who stands as loyal and trustworthy and afforded any form of redemption is, ironically, the murderous spy, Bosola; a looming and powerful turn from Adam Best that steals every moment of stage time.

The play itself never lacks momentum, as the first half of the play skips along with a joyful whimsy amidst the moments of uncomfortable hinted threat and looming dangers. In fact, had the jokey tone of this first half continued throughout, the piece could easily be mistaken for black comedy, as it picks it back up unexpectedly in the penultimate bloodbath that plays out like something from Martin McDonagh. It's the latter part that sits uncomfortably, in part due to the incongruity between the jocularity of the first half and the stark and shocking scenes of gruesome murder, torture and imprisonment. This is hammered home by the unexpected shifts into sombre and beautiful song from the cast, accompanied by Eleanor Kane, as some form of androgynous angelic spirit, only to return to the awkward mashing of some black comedy slapstick.

One notable change is that the ending has been reframed into something considerably more hopeful that Webster's howl at the deplorable darkness of it all, with a somewhat blunt literal message that feels more than a little a sign of our times, but one in keeping with the stark trappings of Tom Piper's stage, little more than a gantry and stairs serving as the frame, with curtain and cage drawn across at appropriate moments to hint at door, or wall, or decoration. This pale stage helps to accentuate the blood oozing by the pint across the stage, and serves as a screen for the tortuous barrages of imagery in the latter half of proceedings, accompanied by an ear-splitting klaxon and plunges of light that begins to grate on the audience clearly more than on the Duchess herself.

That's not to say that the play isn't marvellously entertaining. Harris, her cast and stage crew and indeed the Lyceum can be proud of this piece, which will likely grow a life and fame of its own quite apart from Webster. Rather that, more often that not, The Duchess hits with a sledgehammer where a pin-prick would have been far more effective.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan