Review: The Duchess of Malfi

Bell Shakespeare’s latest production,  The Duchess of Malfi, is an intense and evocative work.

Its impact is partly due to excellent direction and acting, and partly to the vibrant adapted text from writers Ailsa Piper and Hugh Colman.

The writers say they worked to capture the essence of John Webster’s dark Jacobean tragedy in their 1 hour 50-minute adaptation, ‘paring’ Webster’s play to make him more ‘present’. They reduced the work’s large cast of characters to six, modernised archaic spellings and replaced words whose meaning was obscure.

The result is an entertaining and provocative text that has very contemporary resonances.

The concentrated focus is visual as well as textual: the nucleus of the action is a round white ottoman, the single prop on stage, surrounded by black walls. Lighting designer Hartley T A Kemp uses a staggering 400 lighting changes to subtly alter the mood as the story unfolds.

And the mood changes often in this story of love, greed and abuse of power. A young widowed duchess, forbidden to remarry by her two controlling brothers, falls in love with and secretly weds her steward Antonio. Their secret is revealed after the birth of their child and her brothers, jealously guarding their position and inheritance, arrange for them to be killed. Originally written in 1612 , this story is based on a historical figure.

The language is exquisite and the actors do it justice.

Lucy Bell shows a light touch as the tragic duchess

John Bell’s masterful touch is evident in the tight direction. Lucy Bell, working with her father for only the second time in 21 years, plays the duchess with engaging playfulness. The love scenes between her and Matthew Moore as her husband Antonio are delightful, and her grief at his loss is convincing.

The cast delivers strong performances: Lucia Mastrantone is solid in the role of Julia, a blending of Cariola and Julia from the original, as is David Whitney as the cold-hearted lecherous brother, the Cardinal.

But it is Sean O’Shea who dominates the stage in each of his scenes with his portrayal of the duchess’s twin brother, the Judge, a manipulative, possibly incestuous and certainly insane, character.

The only flaw is the role of Daniel de Bosola (Ben Wood), a central character in this production. He is the spy planted in the household of the duchess to make sure she obeys her brothers. On one level Wood’s earthy, almost  laconic and sympathetic spy really works and brings some emotional balance to the roller coaster plot. But there’s a lack of thematic logic that ultimately creates a certain disconnect with his character.

Throughout the play Bosola voices the most convincing moral arguments but consistently undermines these with his actions. He objects to becoming the ‘brothers’ man’ but takes the job of spying on the duchess; he declares his loyalty to the duchess and Antonio but immediately betrays them; and he pities the duchess but strangles her anyway.

Ultimately, he is the source of the play’s violence, the ‘ethical’ assassin at whose hands most of the characters die.

He is the soldier at the beck and call of the law and the church, and from this symbolic perspective his role makes sense. But his protestations are not credible: he tells the Judge, who rails at him for following instructions and killing the duchess, that he has merely acted as his loyal servant, yet he was not loyal to the duchess in whose household he serves. Nor is it clear that he did it for the money.

There are interesting feminist resonances in this production, especially in the struggle of the duchess to live her own life against the wishes of her brothers but also evident in her relationship with Antonio.

And there are striking allusions to more contemporary political events: when the duchess is ‘tortured’ by her brothers in an effort to drive her mad, the startling image of her standing on the ottoman wearing headphones playing loud discordant music evokes Abu Ghraib.

And as Bosola strangles the duchess, news footage of the woman shot for alleged adultery by the Taliban in Afghanistan last week popped into my head.

Catch this play. It’s worth it.

6 July – 5 August

Sydney Opera House, Drama Theatre

Bookings: 02 9250 7777





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