The Duchess (of Malfi) is a daring new adaptation of John Webster’s play by Zinnie Harris that is causing tremors in the Royal Lyceum Theatre this May. Kirsty Stuart stars as the eponymous character, newly widowed in her prime and looking for a fresh start in marriage on her own terms. Like in all good revenge tragedies, this does not sit well with her paternalistic family, mainly her two brothers. The ensuing conflict is rampant and deadly, definitely not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition.
Harris’ revised dialogue is fresh and enjoyably witty, offering comic relief at some of the more excruciatingly intense moments of the play. Cariola and Bosola especially will delight you with their cutting wordplay. These two characters (and actors) are worth every darting line, and more. By seizing control of the text and birthing it anew, Harris imbues the play with a fierce feminine energy that centres the narrative on the strength of subjugated women, while satirising the moral depravity of patriarchal power.
The message of the play is astoundingly clear, even projected across the backdrop at the end – “Change It”. However, the context seems a little lost in translation to modern speak. That is to say that while the play is unmistakably about the domination and subjugation of women in patriarchal society, the poisonous concoction of misogyny, madness and incest risks becoming hyperbolic when put into contemporary English.
The more Jacobean style of some of the actors sits at odds with the subtler techniques of others, and coupled with the confusing fifties-style costumes, this adaptation has not quite found its era. Perhaps this is exactly the point, however. For centuries, women have and continue to face such treatment at the hands of men, as archaic as it may seem today.
Because of this, I struggled to find a foothold for my emotions and thus, I found the usual tragic catharsis to be somewhat lacking. This was not because the story was not tragic in the extreme, but more because I could not quite believe the events that unfolded before my eyes. However, perhaps I simply desensitised myself to the gruelling torture that assaults the eyes and ears throughout the majority of the second half.
Nevertheless, this adaptation utterly redeems itself through the tragically beautiful music that Oğuz Kaplangi carefully weave
s into the tale. The Duchess first opens the play with a hesitant solo that is swiftly sullied by her brothers’ unwanted interruption. By the final scenes, we see a kind of unity behind the lived experience of abused women, captured in the haunting dirges sung by the actresses. Their womanly laments are transcendent aurally and figuratively. These women, separated by age, class and station, harmonise together through a collective memory of all womankind.
Although violent and disturbing in the extreme, there is also a generous optimism that slowly emanates through Zinnie Harris’s The Duchess (of Malfi). While this horrific #metoo society may break the bodies of its women, their spirits endure and rally, the nurturing strength of women making a mockery of the moral weakness of men.