Original writer: John Webster
Writer: Zinnie Harris
Director: Zinnie Harris
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
Unyielding cruelty is at the rotten heart of what is perhaps the most notorious tragedy of English Renaissance drama, The Duchess (of Malfi). Widowed, yet defiant to remarry despite her brothers’ judgements, the Duchess takes on a husband. At first John Webster’s tragedy is a (twisted) love story. Devolving into vicious revenge sees Zinnie Harris’ writing drag the narrative up to change the progression of characters. Heightening misogyny and showcasing past redeemers as crimson coated cowards.
In depictions of violence, particularly sexual, an incomprehensibly narrow line is tread. To offer dignity to the subject matter, avoiding trivialisation. It is by no stretch simple, quite often causing productions to falter in their attempts. Where the entire team of The Duchess (of Malfi) thoroughly succeed is delivering brutality which engages an audience, but doesn’t turn away the masses. This said, the sadists out there may find there was another notch they could have dialled up.
A production bathing in vice, it’s opening Act is guilty of one sin in particular – Sloth, perhaps theatre’s most deadly. While Wrath, Envy and Lust may sit atop the thrones of thematic, the first half of The Duchess (of Malfi) suffers from bloated pacing. In a rare plea, it is worth the build-up. Its world building is a masterpiece which requires patience, this virtue is rewarded. What may this reward be? Theatre with gloves off.
Perhaps it’s bloodlust, but while Harris’ production embraces streaks of scarlet, we’re still hungering for exuding depravity. If boundaries are to be pushed – push until they shatter.
Kirsty Stuart, the Duchess herself refuses to break or at least outlasts her male companions. Her performance takes off in the latter half, something noticeable for the majority of the production. The Duchess will have none of her brothers judgements nor advances, Stuart holds herself steadfast upon the stage to echo the character beautifully.
She feels human, crafted exquisitely for the Citizen’s Women season. Stuart doesn’t conduct the Duchess as a powerhouse of hollow writing, she isn’t a strong character for the sake of female leads; she’s fallible, emotional and follows her heart where her head cries no. With the tortuous depictions in the second act, Stuart’s conveyance of defiance, but acceptance of pain and eventual cracking is hallowing.
Maintaining the poetic language of Webster, Harris harnesses the text whilst infusing it with Scots tone, which has the added benefit of bringing heightened comedic aspects in its required scenes – curdling blood when it’s aggression is called upon. Jamie Macdonald’s video projections add a Tarantino styled introduction, helping to break up the first act.
Rejuvenating the text comes with change, and while the core elements of misogynistic crassness remain – Harris’ text has incorporated a far more appealing angle, the frank insipidness of proud men. Angus Miller’s incestuous Ferdinand, driven to insanity by his own lust for, well everything, is a delightful crumble from ‘power’.
What Harris does beautifully is robbing these men of their final ‘heroic’ actions from the original text. They are no longer seekers of revenge or fighters, but husks of their formers selves crawling amidst the rot and blood; cowards. This is what we need, what we wanted and a damning improvement on adapted scripts.
The Duchess (of Malfi) is rife with vim and vigour, drenching itself in the flesh of the text while Harris offers her own aspects. To describe the first act as a slow-burning is incorrect, it’s a pile of embers. Embers which smoulder, fearful they may die out. What erupts from these is an inferno of cruelty, pain but gut-wrenching emotion. A triumph for Citizen’s Theatre and Royal Lyceum.
Runs until 8 June 2019 | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic