John Webster‘s Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi is extraordinary in a number of respects. Happily, it seems seasoned tragedian, writer and director Zinnie Harris has a keen eye for the elements of the text that give it its enduring power and has expertly brought these to the fore in her innovative adaptation The Duchess [of Malfi]. Webster’s play lingers indelibly in the mind of the audience, due to, not only the shocking level of violence and bloodshed – or indeed the sumptuous presentation of themes such as corruption, power, and incest – but also because of its staggeringly progressive approach to gender politics.
Based on the true story of Giovanna d’Aragona – a widowed Duchess whose abusive and controlling brothers sought to destroy her when she disobeyed them by remarrying, thus denying them her fortune – Webster’s original rails against the injustice of women being denied agency and being treated as property. The titular protagonist is intelligent, resourceful, self contained and sexually empowered. Within the context of the 17th century, Webster therefore seems like quite a radical feminist.
Harris has been astute in identifying a dialogue between Webster’s play and present-day concerns regarding gender and power, and using this to form the premise of The Duchess [of Malfi]. Transposed to a nebulously modern time setting, Harris’ fresh and uncompromising production is a deconstruction of toxic masculinity and a scathing commentary on the current socio-political climate. The Duchess’ elder brother, the Cardinal (George Costigan), epitomises the kind of exploitative and manipulative abusers of power exposed by the ‘Me Too’ movement. Her other brother, the unhinged and firey Ferdinand (Angus Miller), is entitled and immature, obsessed with sex and subject to the most unsavoury Freudian notions. Arguably the most complex and interesting character in the play is Bosola (Adam Best), Webster’s sinister malcontent, transformed here into a bitter INCEL-type, who comes to see the error of his ways all too late.
The more sympathetic male characters, Antionio and Delio, are shown to be themselves victims of patriarchal expectations. Antonio, played by Graham Mackay-Bruce, is plagued by feelings of inadequacy, despite having won the love of Duchess, while Delio (Adam Tompa) is paralysed by repressed homoerotic impulses. The principal performances are universally pitch-perfect, led by an assured and inspiring performance by Kirsty Stuart as the Duchess.
The inventive minimalist staging, relying on stark, vaguely industrial visuals, is complimented by anti-naturalistic elements such as image and word projections, and Brechtian use of musical interludes. The script is cleverly devised, reflecting the characters’ discrete thought-processes via incomplete sentences and non-sequitur, with characters often seeming to speak over and interrupt one another, creating a fitting sense of fundamental discordance.
Webster’s finale, famously a bloodbath boasting a grotesquely high body count, is granted purpose and modicum of hope in Harris’ re-imagining. The Duchess’ surviving young son is presented at the point when his future seems precarious and uncertain, in the wake of the absolute devastation caused by his hitherto male role models. His mother speaks commandingly in these final moments, uttering a rallying feminist battle-cry: “Take my boy’s hand… And change it”.