25 February 2014, Varsity Culture Section
T. S. Eliot famously said that Jacobean dramatist John Webster was much possessed with death, and saw “the skull beneath the skin” in every act on stage. In none of Webster’s plays can the skull be seen so clearly leering through the drawn, waxen flesh as in The Duchess of Malfi.
Death pervades this tale of love, corruption, class and the violent domination of women. In an attempt to secure her own happiness, the Duchess of Malfi, played by Charlotte Quinney, marries against the wishes of her sordid, tyrannical brothers – Ferdinand and the Cardinal – to the lowly Antonio. This sets up a chain of events which, when they come cascading down, result in tragedy and the merciless shedding of innocent blood.
Isabelle Kettle, the production’s director, acknowledges that the more sensational aspects of the Duchess’s plight may be the ones which draw people in. She herself laughingly quips that she thinks “sex and violence are really interesting”. It is the characterisation which has helped the play endure, however, and this was what attracted her to directing it, in particular the role of the Duchess – a rare example of a woman at the centre of a Jacobean tragedy. Quinney notes that what Webster seems to be doing for the first time is portraying a woman who “isn’t all about chastity”. She is a strong woman, and one “whose desire is given value within the play”. There is also interest for the actors in the role reversal between Antonio and the Duchess: “She has the power, she comes onto him”. This production stages Antonio as the “wife-figure” to the Duchess. It is these ideas of gender, sex, and power that Quinney says she would sell the play on.
What immediately becomes clear of the cast and crew is the delight they take in their characters and Webster’s idiosyncratic dialogue for each. “They’re real”, says Quinney, and as a result Kettle is determined to put the emphasis on the characters in this reading of the play. “It’s not trying to get across any message”, she asserts, and her aim is for the audience to “find the truth in it through the actors and through the relationships”. As much as the characters strive to find their own individuality and meaning in an oppressive and masculine world, so must the audience in the course of the play.
The actors hope to induce the same emotionality that they experienced in rehearsing this play. Quinney admits freely that she felt overwhelmed by The Duchess of Malfi at times. Kettle has sought to rack up the emotional turmoil, and “there will be a strong sense as the play goes through – and everything collapses and unravels – likewise the set is going to do the same.” Sound should also play an important role in the production, descending into a mix of broken chords and jarring sharps to match the scenery. They create a sense of a “whole world being deconstructed” as the tragedy tightens its vice-like grip on the characters.
This production is set against a backdrop of Italian Fascism in 1933. Kettles states that when she was reading the play the idea of Fascism illuminated her understanding of it: it seemed to be a natural fit. “What is contained in fascism which focuses this play”, says Bloor, is its ideological nucleus: “one, strength; two, control; and three, order. And purity comes out of order, and control of women comes out of strength and order”.
The cast and crew express some dissatisfaction with updates of plays which add aesthetic effects but contribute little to meaning. Bloor adds that a traditional “costume drama” feels too much like a story and produces something that feels distant. That is the very antithesis of her Duchess, and I hope they will succeed in creating the forceful, realistic and nuanced production they hope to.