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The Duchess (of Malfi) review at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘slick and streamlined, a towering adaptation’

Angus Miller as Ferdinand and Kirsty Stuart as the Duchess in Zinnie Harris’s production. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
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Zinnie Harris has filleted John Webster’s great Jacobean revenge tragedy in a slick and streamlined adaptation. This is all lean meat and, in her direction of her own text, Harris slams it down on the nearly bare Lyceum stage, laying out an examination of misogyny with bitter irony.

Harris’s script retains the thrust of Webster’s original. Brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand, attempt to control the love life of Ferdinand’s recently widowed twin sister, the Duchess. However, she secretly takes the steward of her household, Antonio, as her new husband

Most of the wordy banter of Webster’s text is dropped, along with its examinations of class and the changes to social power structures taking place in 16th century Italy. Conflating characters to the bare minimum needed to tell her story, Harris allows a glimmer of comedy to shine through before recreating the denouement as a full-blooded cry against the violence of male control of female sexuality.

Tom Piper’s set pushes the stage right back to its edges, creating a giant white padded cell with a gantry running halfway up the rear wall. A musician, the beautifully voiced Eleanor Kane, appears dressed in the white of an asylum assistant to accompany the female characters in Oguz Kaplangi’s songs, strummed like gentle 1950s American pop. Later, she is more of an angel figure, washing blood from the recently killed.

Harris uses examinations of each protagonist in turn to drive the first half. Kirsty Stuart’s clever, confident Duchess is clearly mistress of her own houses – she now has three to her twin’s one. Fletcher Mathers gives her personal servant, Cariola, a fiery loyalty.

George Costigan has entitlement and power at his core as the hypocritical Cardinal who grooms and coerces Leah Walker’s needy Julia from willing lover to subjugated plaything. But there is real unhinged danger to Angus Miller’s Ferdinand, whose attempts at control and subsequent descent into madness clearly spring from an incestuous desire.

Graham Mackay-Bruce as Antonio and Adam Tompa as his best friend and Julia’s husband Delio hint that there is a different way for men to be, than treating women as their chattels.

But, as in the original, the most complex and fascinating character is Bosola, the convicted murderer who becomes Ferdinand’s spy in the Duchess’s house. Adam Best gives the production’s stand-out performance, convincing utterly as the clever but brutalised servant of first the Cardinal and then Ferdinand.

Harris’s slick direction dissipates somewhat in the second half, the explicit violence and murder somehow less chilling than the implicit violence of the first. However, with the souls of the murdered women close by and the bodies of the slain men littering the stage, Harris makes it clear that it is only Bosola’s redemption and willingness to take on responsibility for the next generation that can bring about change.

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Verdict
Towering adaptation of Webster's revenge tragedy as an indictment of misogyny
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