Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is one of the best-known works of English 17th Century Drama. Pretty unusual for the BT then, you might be thinking. What director Cara Kenny and her team have realised, however, is that the underlying tensions of the play – the devastating impact of gossip and rumour – are more relevant to us nowadays than ever before.
That’s why their version is going to be taking place not in the Court of Renaissance Amalfi, but instead that of 21st Century Tabloid Culture. It’s a play all about intrusions into the personal lives of others, and the director told me that this was part of the appeal of the BT as a venue – raised seating in the BT will allow them to perform this play, usually performed on a large-scale, on so small a stage that the audience themselves will feel they are intruding physically into the scenes they are witnessing.
Mary Higgins and Christy Callaway-Gale, playing the Duchess and Cariola, her confidante, respectively, impressively capture the nervous excitement and coquettish nature of their characters in the first act, as the Duchess seduces Hamish Forbes’ Antonio.
The contrast between the Duchess’ overt confidence and Antonio’s reservations about the idea of a liaison between the two is something which this performance particularly draws out. The Duchess’ initial confidence, however, only serves to make her descent into despair all the more harrowing. The interchange between the Duchess and Bosola, a former killer, in Act 4 is replete with the sort of crazed passion that comes only from utter despair. In another interesting decision, this production has Bosola in a gender-inverted role, with Bex Watson performing the traditionally male part. It was interesting to hear the director’s reasons for this: in a play where the Duchess suffers so much due to societal constraints based on her gender, they wanted to create a Bosola who can act as a direct comparison – a woman who refuses to conform to gender stereotypes and takes advantage of society as suits her, without regard for reputation.
All in all, this promises to be a fascinating modern-day interpretation of Webster’s classic, and is definitely worth a watch, particularly for those second-year English students amongst you.