The Duchess [of Malfi], Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh ****
As Harris’s play begins, the recently widowed young Duchess, magnificently played by Kirsty Stuart, is singing a smoky torch-song – Oguz Kaplangi’s score of love-songs and laments plays a key role in a show that celebrates all the registers of the female voice – and wearing an elegantly gorgeous red dress. In truth, she is already in love with her kind and honest steward, Antonio, and is about to marry him in secret; but her two brothers – the Cardinal, motivated only by considerations of wealth and status, and the Duchess’s twin Ferdinand, driven by a lethal incestuous obsession – suggest that she should live a life of nun-like seclusion and respectability, an idea which she greets with incredulous laughter.
They are deadly serious, though; and when she gives birth to twins by Antonio, her fate is sealed, spiralling downward into scenes of heart-scorching grief, cruelty, and torture largely orchestrated by Ferdinand’s obsessively loyal servant and hit-man Bosola, played by Adam Best in a performance of quite breathtaking complexity and brilliance.
Like Webster’s original drama, Harris’s version has a long coda of a fifth act, in which the murdered Duchess haunts the living in search of resolution; and like Webster, Harris struggles a little – as both writer and director – to maintain the intensity of the drama once the glowing and poignant Duchess is gone.
With George Costigan delivering a brilliantly sleazy performance as the Cardinal, though, the final act has its own richness; and in the end, Harris gathers her narrative into a dream never imagined by Webster, in which redemption is offered to, and through, a transformed and repentant Bosola, while the white-clad women of the story sing one another to a better world, and hope for change in the one they have left behind.
Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 8 June; Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 4-21 September.