Zinnie Harris on The Duchess [of Malfi]

We chat to Zinnie Harris about male rage, female resistance, and updating John Webster's 17th century play The Duchess of Malfi for the present day

Feature by Megan Wallace | 10 May 2019
  • Zinnie Harris on The Duchess [of Malfi] 3

Whether it be The Favourite or Fleabag, the cultural hits of the past year have been resoundingly female. With productions centring emotions like lust and rage, it’s clear that women in culture don’t have to play nice any longer: complex characters rather than one-dimensional heroines are the order of the day. 

The changing context of the past few years, which has seen feminism become a hot button topic, has finally yielded the kind of flawed but real female characters who have so long been missing from film, television and theatre alike. This is exactly what makes John Webster’s 17th century play The Duchess of Malfi so ripe for adaptation. The tale follows the Duchess of the title in the wake of her husband’s death as she wields power independently for the first time, revealing her passions and rejecting the authority of her male relatives – to her own peril.

The Lens of Gender

In this new adaptation by Zinnie Harris, this classic tale of familial and regal obligations will be focalised through the lens of gender, bringing the power dynamics of the original into sharp focus. For Harris, the attraction of adapting The Duchess of Malfi lay with the Duchess as a character, but also the play’s contemporary feel.

The Duchess of Malfi is a wonderfully rich tale of love, sex and hatred. It’s one of those plays that is written on a broad canvas, is hugely theatrical and tells a big story. It’s also an important story that will speak to any audience," Harris begins. "The Duchess herself is a character who in some ways feels timeless – she might have been first written into existence in the 17th century but she acts like a modern woman. She knows what she wants and is prepared to stand up to the men around who are trying to stop her from achieving it," she explains.

Female Triumph and Female Tragedy

Yet the play doesn't just revolve around female triumph, but rather female tragedy. It viscerally charts the backlash which women receive for speaking their mind and daring to defy tradition — particularly in systems of power, where toxic masculinity goes unchecked. As Harris explains, the Duchess’s power and self possession become dangerous sources of male anxiety and paranoia, which ultimately put her and the ones she loves at risk.

“The Duchess is a widow, and that is important because women who have never been married are easier to control as they have no money of their own," Harris explains. "The Duchess is rich, she is not naïve about love and sex, and she knows who and what she wants. That position is terrifying to her brothers, who no longer have the upper hand. She literally could do anything, she is fearless. So, of course, they try to stop her.” 

We’ve been having conversations about gendered inequalities for what seems like decades now, but what makes the story and character of the Duchess particularly relevant is its juxtaposition of the macro and the micro; highlighting how even the most powerful women can fall foul of abusive power dynamics at a personal level.

The Duchess of Malfi is all about women, and how they are treated by the men around them. I felt this chimed with a broader question in our cultural lives about how women are viewed and understood. At one level, there are discussions in the media about how many women are on FTSE 100 boards," continues Harris. "At another there is this whole new movement that started with #MeToo about sexuality and what equality should mean. It makes The Duchess a perfect play to revisit — in many ways I think of Webster as a sort of proto-feminist, bringing the story of the Duchess to the stage, many many years before people were writing or thinking about feminism or women’s liberation."

Exploration of Masculinity and Femininity 

Given that women's lives often become the collateral damage of fragile male egos, Harris’s adaptation is as much an exploration of masculinity as it is of femininity.

“The other thing that attracted me to the text is the representation of men in the play and their choices. After all, when you are talking about the empowerment of women, you are really talking about men and the choices they are making. The Duchess's brothers are horribly misguided; they think they love her — in fact in many ways the whole play is about love, what it does to us and how it kills us when it goes wrong — but they can’t see that to love someone is to let them be free. Indeed, we see in our times families where brothers control the women they report to love and would rather kill them than let them make their own choices. This is a tale that has been told no doubt many times across the ages in different contexts."

Beyond its preoccupation with historical and contemporary gender dynamics, it’s a particularly pertinent play for this cultural moment of reevaluating and redrawing boundaries as seen in one of the characters, Bosola, who, as Harris explains, undergoes something of a moral re-awakening.

“Another of the characters is Bosola, who for the first half of the play is another villain. He is a paid assassin working for the Cardinal, but Webster’s genius is to give this character a huge story arc; he effectively wakes up and starts to take responsibility for what he does through the course of the play," she says. "In other words we see him grow up before our eyes in a way that none of the other male characters can achieve. I like the fact that it’s the most reprehensible character that does this, the one at the start who literally is crawling around the gutter slitting throats for a living."

Adding Something to the Conversation

Dealing with issues that are so relevant to the here and now, it was important for Harris to give her adaptation as contemporary a spin as possible, making sure that the audience feels the full weight of the tragedy as it unfolds.

“My hope is that the audience will experience it like a play that has been written for them today. The characters feel modern, what they do and talk about is modern. That means there is not this sense of removal that you often get watching period drama, so much as being immersed in what the story is saying to us about our times now.”

Ultimately, however, it’s also a play which seeks to add something to the conversation, rather than merely mirror the status quo back to the audience. In this regard, Harris hopes to show the danger inherent in patriarchy — not just for the women who bear the brunt of its toxicity, but for the men who seamlessly step into the role of villain. “Ultimately Ferdinand, by trying to destroy the Duchess, goes mad and ends up destroying himself — this is what I mean about Webster being a proto-feminist, he seemed to be saying we control and destroy women only at our own peril.”

The Duchess [of Malfi], Royal Lyceum Theatre, 17 May-8 Jun