Review: The Duchess (of Malfi) – Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Thursday May 23 2019

Four Stars

John Webster’s 1614 tragedy is a bold, provocative choice of play for inclusion in the Citizens Women season. The Jacobean dramatist was astonishingly ahead of his time in addressing the patriarchy’s horror of female agency. This new version by Zinnie Harris, which relocates the action to a world disturbingly close to the present, is similarly unflinching. The pared-down intensity of her update feels acutely right for our times.

Webster’s play is famously grisly. In the RSC’s 2018 production, directed by Maria Aberg, the audience members in the front row were issued with plastic sheeting to protect them from the blood showering from the stage. Harris’s production for the Citizens and the Lyceum deploys the red stuff more sparingly. The tortures endured by Kirsty Stuart’s Duchess at the hands of her brothers for the temerity of having married beneath her social station are all the more visceral for being psychological rather than physical torments. The Cardinal’s (George Costigan) sense of entitlement over Julia’s (Leah Walker) body is chilling precisely because it is so offhand and persistent.

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Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Although the central theme here is the implications of unchecked masculinity, Harris’s production revolves around Stuart’s compelling performance as the warm, impulsive, carefree Duchess. Her death scene is harrowing and upsetting but it is far from the end of the story. In Harris’s version the voices of the dead women echo loudly in their murderers’ ears long after the bodies have been laid out and the play ends with a rousing call for change.

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Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

It is a hefty task for any director to mitigate Webster’s bloodthirsty dénouement, and this production, in its more extreme moments, treads a fine line between black humour and silliness. There is much that is powerful, though, with strong performances from the ensemble (notably Fletcher Mather as the Duchess’s headstrong servant and Adam Best’s remorseful henchman, Bosola) and poignant musical interventions from the guitarist Eleanor Kane.

Box office: 0131 248 4848, to June 8; Tramway, Glasgow, September 4-21

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