A modern revision of a Jacobean melodrama
Zinnie Harris's daring, contemporary take on The Duchess of Malfi opens with the eponymous Duchess singing alone on stage. Tentative at first, she eventually warms to this act of self-expression and agency until abruptly, two men appear on a looming bridge above her and the moment is broken: the lights shudder, the music jars, and the Duchess falters. This fleeting exposition of male domination over female independence sets the scene for Harris's fresh approach to this oft-told tale.
From the younger brother Ferdinand's agonised rage over his frustrated masculinity to the older brother's brutal rape of his mistress Julia in order to reinforce her financial dependence on him, The Duchess [of Malfi] exposes the disturbing cruelty of gender oppression through to its visceral end.
Strikingly, Harris does not shy away from the physical and sexual violence these women endure in this Citizens Theatre production, but rather recovers the subjectivity of the female experience within it; in one of the most extraordinary scenes of the play, the women band together, drenched in blood, and occupy the stage, if not as a corrective to male violence then as an act of stark resistance to it. Superbly acted by a consistently strong cast, led by Kirsty Young's vibrant, defiant Duchess, The Duchess [of Malfi] renders John Webster's play as timely and relevant as ever.
Tramway, Wed 4–Sat 21 Sep. Reviewed at Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.