The Duchess [of Malfi] @ The Lyceum, Edinburgh

Zinnie Harris' contemporary adaption of The Duchess of Malfi is a timely and brilliant portrayal of toxic masculinity in the modern age

Live Review by Maya Jones | 28 May 2019
  • The Duchess [of Malfi] @ The Lyceum, Edinburgh

John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi may be set in sixteenth-century Italy but it offers a damning portrayal of Webster's contemporary society. Just as the Italian setting is used to critique the court of James I in the original text, Zinnie Harris adapts the play to reflect our own times. The continuing appeal of Webster’s tragedy lies in its timeless depiction of a fiercely independent woman crushed by the rage of powerful men. With beautiful prose that tackles victim blaming, consent, and toxic masculinity, Harris brings the story into the twenty-first century. The Duchess [of Malfi] turns a Jacobean revenge tragedy into an unflinching, feminist portrait of our age. 

The play opens with the newly widowed Duchess, whose wit and impulsive passion are captured by Kirsty Stuart. Motivated by jealousy, misogyny and a desire to control her body, Ferdinand and the Cardinal forbid their sister from re-marrying. After the Duchess secretly marries her servant, the bumbling and slightly pathetic Antonio (Graham Mackay-Bruce), she finds herself at the mercy of her brother’s henchman, Bosola (Adam Best). Angus Miller offers a terrifyingly unpredictable performance as Ferdinand, with outbursts of anger that foreshadow his descent into madness, but it is George Costigan’s cold and detached Cardinal who emerges as the calculating force of the play.

In the first half, Harris juxtaposes scenes of abuse with moments of laughter and light relief. The comedy of a scene in which a heavily pregnant Duchess enjoys eating apricots, and the warmth of her relationship with Antonio, only heightens the impending tragedy. Comedic moments cease after the interval, as the play approaches its bloody and murderous conclusion. A few key, artistic decisions highlight Harris’s skill as both director and writer: Ferdinand is placed in the same cage in which he tortures the Duchess, and the victims are kept on stage after their deaths, reminding the audience that this is a play about guilt.

My only fault is that Bosola’s character arc from misogynistic henchman to redemptive carer feels a little forced. The ending suffers from Harris’s decision to deviate from Webster’s plot. That said, allowing the Duchess the final words feels fitting after a second half defined by male violence against women. As she implores Bosola and the audience to “change it”, and the words flash across the backdrop, it is hard to miss the message of this brilliant, timely play.  

The Duchess [of Malfi] @ The Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 8 Jun