JOHN Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is a play about woman who tries to live her own life, according to her own passions, and is savagely punished for it by the violent patriarchal society around her; and although it was first seen in 1614, there is something about the pattern of misogyny, paranoia and fierce controlling behaviour traced out in Webster’s plot that remains sickeningly familiar, more than 400 years on.
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.