Zinnie Harries’ reimagining of The Duchess (of Malfi) attempts to position Webster’s 17th century classic within the context of the 21st century and #MeToo. Kirsty Stuart centres as the recently widowed Duchess, a young woman determined to follow her own path following the death of her husband. Yet, like the other women who surround her, she is ultimately suffocated and suppressed by the at best pathetic, and at worse murderous, men in her life.
Young’s Duchess physically stands out from the very beginning, in a red dress cast against clean, white scenery. Indeed, Tom Piper’s cleverly-designed staging provides the perfect setting throughout, particularly during the play’s later, and more graphic scenes. Much of the production makes for uncomfortable watching, and rightfully so; at times, the loud audio and projections of violent footage overwhelm the senses, forcing the audience to close their eyes.
The production also makes explicit reference to divergent conceptions of masculinity. Mackay-Bruce’s Antonio is repeatedly emasculated by his peers (and himself) for his lack of physical strength; it is this very depiction of vulnerability that affords his persona the dimension the other male characters lack. Gender-constructed contradictions are inherent throughout the narrative. The Cardinal’s non-consensual adultery (deemed permissible) is directly contrasted with the Duchess’ own legitimate and consummated second marriage.
Harries’ undertakes a gargantuan task in modernising The Duchess, and some moments are lost in temporal translation. The characters’ abrupt cursing, and the use of futuristic sound effects during the play’s torture scenes, are often out of place. As such, Adam Best’s Bosola, arguably the truest to his Jacobean original, is also especially well performed. Nevertheless, the overarching message – of female restriction through gendered and religious codes – certainly persists and resonates with the contemporary audience. Just as the Duchess ‘belonged to none of us’, the play transcends its original context.
The Duchess (of Malfi) runs at the Lyceum Theatre until 8 June 2019.