Tempestuous Text

Issue section: 

Review of 'The Duchess of Malfi' by John Webster, National Theatre, London and touring

Whenever a new production emerges of this famous Jacobean political thriller--stuffed with sexual intrigue, ritual torture, multiple murder and religious hypocrisy--audiences flock in, eager for a new twist on the bloodthirsty plot and tempestuous text.

The original story comes from an Elizabethan tale by court writer William Painter. The duchess, a widow, is forbidden to marry again by her brothers Duke Ferdinand and the cardinal because they want to control her wealth. Ferdinand hires Bosola, an assassin, to spy on the duchess. But with the help of her lady in waiting Cariola, she disobeys them by marrying her steward Antonio in secret and having three children with him. When Bosola finds this out all hell breaks loose.

Ferdinand and the cardinal plot the seizure and murder of the duchess, Antonio and two of their children, which Bosola, with the help of soldier-police, doctors, priests and executioners, organises. The plotters themselves then turn on and destroy one another, and the duchess's baby son is held up as the hope of the future.

The play's moral message condemns the misdeeds of the nobility and 'allurement' in women, reflecting a society in upheaval over the rising fortunes of a new merchant and the spectre of women with property seeking social independence.

There are plenty of nightmarish treats here. Janet McTeer dazzles as the eponymous heroine, revelling in her sexuality, romping like a lioness with her children, undercutting her brothers' mercenary coercion with affection and rationality. Lorcan Cranitch is brilliantly pragmatic as Bosola, double-crossing and double-crossed, in thrall to his treacherous craft and his fear of retribution. Ferdinand, played by Will Keen, sputters with repressed incestuous and homosexual feelings, full of fury, ambition and guilt. The language explodes like fireworks.

The staging is an auditorium, mirroring the theatre itself, with benches separated from the main action by a glass partition, creating a combination of gameshow and zoo. More surreally, terrifying projected montage image sequences blare out as the duchess is tortured, hinting broadly at an artistic descendant and admirer of Webster--Harold Pinter. Both dramatists deal with the chilling conundrum of love among tyrants and despots.

The play was virtually unseen for 200 years, cast off for smuttiness and 'perversity'. Only with the arrival of the 20th century could audiences relate once more to its grisly depiction of historical upheaval, the collapse of the old state order and the visceral competition for social power. Feminism has uncovered another layer--why is the duchess not permitted to control her own body and property? And what recourse does she have when even the moral base of the church upholds her oppression?

Contemporary audiences can also get their teeth into the problem of the play's sexual morality--if the duchess is a victim of corruption, why do she and her children have to die for the tactics she adopts to survive? The starkest clash between religion and the female occurs when the cardinal kills his adulterous mistress to stop her spilling the beans about his crimes, by smothering her with a poisoned Bible.

Watching the play was a thrilling, sometimes puzzling, yet gruelling experience.