Who is responsible for murder? It’s unclear if this was the foremost question in John Webster’s heart as he penned The Duchess of Malfi, one of England’s best-known and most macabre dramas of the Early Modern period but this version of the play sets issues of responsibility, duty and coercion starkly at its heart. Directed by Cara Kenny and Niall Docherty, and featuring a small cast of six, with actors doubling at times, the production of Webster’s play on this week at the BT explicitly sets out to trouble its audience. The play’s sudden ending only serves to emphasise this, with the absence of the cast for the audience’s applause also heightening the sense that this has been less a performance than an event that we, as silent watchers of the brutal action, have implicitly condoned.
The play has been updated, with images of the media haunting the set. Pages cut out of the Malfi Mail slowly stack up onstage. Each character brandishes pages at another, as threats to reputation deriving from media gossip become genuine threats to lives. As Ferdinand, superbly played by Docherty, points out, once your reputation flies away, nothing is left behind. In a world where man can be ‘doom[ed] to death by information’, misinformation is just as dangerous.
The cast is strong. The Duchess, of course, is the star of the show, and Mary Higgins pulls off the range of her character beautifully. Determined, powerful—more than a match for her brothers—as well as deeply loving and vulnerable, Higgins exhibits a plethora of emotions while never tumbling into bathos. Although the play casts her in the role of mistreated female, her collected tranquillity displays a masterly self-control. Her death is profoundly moving, as are the comic but deeply felt love scenes between her and Antonio (Hamish Forbes).
The cardinal’s role is somewhat lesser than expected, and it would have been a pleasure to see more of Tom Marshall’s skill. Ferdinand’s violently turbulent nature emerges powerfully and compellingly; the contrast with the cardinal’s cold calculations could have been heightened to greater effect by giving Marshall more stage time. Kenny and Docherty’s decision to double cast is at times confusing, as the costume changes are sufficiently subtle that the difference in character identity isn’t always immediately obvious. The villainous Bosola (Bex Watson) is at the play’s heart, although the complexity of this malcontent is never really plumbed. His change of heart at the end is unexplained: it is not just the witnessing of the Duchess’s self-control before her death that upsets him so. Rather, the Duchess’s outpouring of grief at the news of Antonio’s murder is where we can locate the shift; but why should this have the effect that it does when through the first half of the play Bosola has been unerringly focused on causing the couple catastrophe? Perhaps, like Iago, Bosola’s inner world is one we can never comprehend, at least in this production. But it is an unnerving mood that prevails, as comedy is supplanted by grotesque scenes. The light-hearted giggles and ease previously supplied by Cariola (Christy Callaway-Gale) are dramatically offset by the horrific violence of her shriek-filled death in the play’s final denouement.
‘Yet I loathed the evil, I did love you that did counsel it’. Sad words, as Bosola wrestles with the implications of his actions and the pale small body of the Duchess before him. Who is more at fault, he or Ferdinand? ‘Was I your judge?’, Ferdinand asks, in final rage and twisted regret at the death of his twin that he had ordered. Bosola’s crime is obedience, just as the audience’s crime is witnessing in silence and applauding with approval. An innovative production of this timeless play, this production of The Duchess of Malfi is well worth attention.
The Duchess of Malfi is playing at the B-T Studio from 24th -28th February.
IMAGE/ Duchess of Malfi publicity