Review: The Duchess [of Malfi],              Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Review: The Duchess [of Malfi], Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

by Alan Grant
article from Friday 24, May, 2019

WRITTEN IN 1612 by English dramatist John Webster, The Tragedy of the Dutchesse of Malfy may be an old play, but the 2019 revamp, The Duchess [of Malfi], which had its recent world premiere at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, is no dusty old bit of 17th century drama. In fact, it feels both relatable and dispiritingly modern.

Adapted and directed by the multi-award winning Zinnie Harris, who has enjoyed success with Rhinoceros(The Fall of) The Master Builder, and How to Hold Your Breath, this version of the play slams the fundamental parts of Webster’s original into the brand new frame of #MeToo and the broader conversation around men’s violence against women, sexism, and misogyny in a brutal and unflinching way.

Our plot centres around the titular Duchess (Kirsty Stewart) who finds herself widowed from her dull and boring husband and reinvigorated with the money and sexual freedom that her position and situation bring. She marries the charming and befuddled steward of her home, Antonio, in secret and the pair begin a clandestine family together. However, scheming against her are her two brothers; the new Duke, Ferdinand (Angus Miller) the scheming and malevolent Cardinal (George Costigan). 

What follows is a complex and intriguing story of deception, manipulation, abuse, and violence set against a backdrop of power, status, and sexual politics.

What is most immediately striking about The Duchess is the sparse and bleak aesthetic that set and costume mastermind Tom Piper MBE has put together. The set begins pristine, white and clean, and becomes slowly darker, tarnished, and, eventually, blood-splattered; reflecting the morality and mood of the play. However, the subtlety and nuance with which this is handled ensure that the effect creeps up on the audience and is never heavy-handed.  

Oguz Kaplangi’s musical score is also highly impressive; combining eerie and tension-inducing strings and guitars with haunting vocals and ingenious use of silence. The entire sound schema is subtle and appropriate and adds depth and further emotion to an already deep and moving piece of theatre. However, it is during one particular scene, in which the main character is being tortured that the Kaplangi’s, work really shines. It is unpleasant, uncomfortable, tense to watch, as well as being completely fitting and utterly gripping. You couldn’t just teach a class about sound production based upon The Duchess – you could teach a course with it.  

As important as the technical aspects are, a nice stage without thrilling performances on it is just nicely decorated firewood and, thankfully, The Duchess has brilliant performances across the board. Kirsty Stewart, a very capable Scottish actor, brings humanity and relatability to the physically and emotionally demanding role of the title character. She supports this genuine likeability with a grasp of emotional range, balance, and poise that convey the essence of her troubled aristocrat character. Graham Mackay-Bruce also manages to capture the mania and intensity of the villainous and unstable Ferdinand while Adam Best delivers an excellent showing as the troubled and conflicted manservant Bosola.

However, from where I sat, the standout performance of the evening was that of George Costigan as the Cardinal. This complex part could easily trip a less talented and more inexperienced actor – sending them falling into full-on pantomime territory - but Costigan smoulders villainously as he plays puppet-master to the other characters. If anyone from this piece would be deserving of a spin-off, it would be Costigan’s Cardinal – getting to see him move through the halls of power in Rome, like some kind of Vatican Frances Underwood would be a dream.

I had to admire the bravery of The Duchess, particularly given the social and cultural climate. In the age of #MeToo and its subsequent debate and backlash, there is a decision to be made when dealing with topics such as male violence, toxic masculinity, gender roles, and other such topics; do you go subtle and attempt to persuade the undecided or go strong, unapologetic, and unflinching? Thankfully, The Duchess does the latter. Where a less stark, and timider in imagery terms, depiction of this thrilling tragedy would have used its message – a condemnation of sexism and gender inequality – by threading it through the narrative; The Duchess gives that a resounding, “No!”. From the opening line to the final, jarring scene, the audience is beaten around the head with what the play is, for lack of a better term, ‘about’.

Of several possible options, that is the message that I, and I hope others, take away from The Duchess. That if you have something to say then there is no point being coy or demure about it, you must say it directly and in the strongest possible terms, not caring if the audience is equipped or willing to understand. If any playwrights, authors, or directors see this play and take this message on board then they will, surely, find their work improved… and what a legacy that would be for The Duchess.

The Duchess [of Malfi] Royal Lyceum Theatre – Box Office 0131 248 4848 or online here

Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic: George Costigan as the Cardinal and Angus Miller as Ferdinand.


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