John Webster’s great and troubling tragedy The Duchess of Malfi was written more than 400 years ago, and first performed in London in 1613. The play was born into an age so far from any kind of feminism that women were still banned from performing on London’s stages; the King himself - James VI and I - had been involved during his time in Scotland in one of the most cruel and aggressive campaigns of witch-burning in Europe.
And yet so many centuries on, it remains one of the most brilliant, lurid and heartbreaking texts ever written about a woman - rich, beautiful, aristocratic, and a reigning Duchess in her own right - who tries to exercise control over her own life, to make her own sexual and personal choices, to marry the man she loves and to bear his children; and who finds herself and her family torn apart by the sheer vengeful force of patriarchal power, in the shape of her two murderous brothers, and their servant Bosola, one of the most complex and disturbing villains in the whole stage canon.
It’s therefore hardly surprising that in the #MeToo moment of 2018 - when women, after so many years of struggle, found themselves shocked and saddened once again by the levels of casual sexual bullying still endured by so many - a generation of theatre makers began to turn their attention once again to The Duchess, still an iconic figure for our time; and among them was leading Scottish playwright and Lyceum associate director Zinnie Harris, who created a brand new version of Webster’s play - titled simply The Duchess - for a Lyceum-Citizens’ Theatre co-production which opened at the Lyceum a year ago this week, and then appeared in September at the Tramway, Glasgow.
One of the main differences between Webster’s original play and Zinnie Harris’s version lies in the long final act of the drama, which follows the Duchess’s horrific torture and death; Harris transforms it partly into a dream of a new world, in which women might walk free, and wash away the terrible wounds of the past. In this sequence from the play, though, magnificently performed by Kirsty Stuart, there is just a faint glimmer of that shift, in the vision the Duchess shares with her waiting-woman Cariola of women singing “songs of how they came to be free.”
For the rest, this scene captures the moment when this beautiful, brave and passionate woman, broken by months of imprisonment and torture, realises she is about to die at the hands of Bosola, whom she one thought of as her own servant and friend. Kirsty Stuart is one of Scotland’s finest actresses, well known to television viewers for roles in Call The Midwife, Shetland, Outlander, River City, and many other series; in 2018 she appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Frances Poet’s play Gut, and last autumn she was an unforgettable Grace in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s touring production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.
She has never given a more powerful and moving performance, though, than in her evocation of The Duchess who believes in her own freedom, only to find that belief savagely and bloodily crushed. And until we live in a world with no more wife beatings, no more “honour killings,” no more forced marriages, and no more coercive bullying of women by those who want to control them, the Duchess’s story will never cease to be told; and to shock, move and challenge everyone who experiences it.
The text of The Duchess [of Malfi], by Zinnie Harris, is published by Faber & Faber, £9.99