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 The Duchess of Malfi
National Business Review, 15 July 2005



Revenge seen as a tabloid expose
A play on the capacity of greed, lust, and power to corrupt

by John Daly Peoples
The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, until July 30

William Shakespeare's contemporary John Webster (1580-1625) is famous for just two plays, The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, which provide a host of intriguing characters and incidents.

The Duchess of Malfi is set in Italy in the style of the revenge tragedy.  The Cardinal and the Duke of Calabria, motivated by family pride, and in the case of the Duke, hints of sexual desires, try to prevent their widowed sister, the Duchess, from marrying again.

They persuade her to hire Bosola, a murderer who acts as a spy for them.  He reports that she is in love with Antonio and has a child by him.  The brothers vow to avenge the family honour and kill the Duchess, her maid, and two of her three children.  Guilt-ridden, the Duke goes insane and Bosola, the Cardinal and Antonio are all killed.

Like many of the plays of the time, there are strong social and political elements, though they are often veiled by their foreign setting.

The Duchess is modelled on the recently dead Elizabeth I and on the then Queen, Anne of Denmark, whose lifestyle was extravagant and debauched.  Her Catholicism  (the Italian connection) was often seen as something between an embarrassment and treasonable.

Webster's investigation of things untoward at court is not unlike a tabloid expose--with the Duchess an earlier version of Diana, Princess of Wales--with revelations of honour killings.

The play also has some strong Mafia connections and several of the characters could have taken roles in The Sopranos.

Some commentators have viewed Webster as little more than the equivalent of a director of splatter movies who resorts to the depiction of horrific events as titillation.

However, Webster's effectiveness lies in his exploration of baser human instincts and the way they corrupt.

The play also illustrates human resilience and fortitude, even in the face of the greatest of horrors, as well as the consequences of giving in to negative emotions such as greed, lust, and the desire for revenge and power.

Sophia Hawthorne as the Duchess gives a vibrant display with the right mixture of nobility and sensuality.

The Cardinal (Cameron Rhodes) was disappointing as a character who should be an evil villain and Benjamin Farry was just a bit too frenzied for the sexually and morally deviant Duke Ferdinand.

Matt Wilson gave a solid and perceptive performance as Antonio and Robyn Malcolm gives well judged performances as the Cardinal's mistress as well as Cariola, the duchess' loyal maid.

Michael Hurst, as Bosola the murderer who turns revenger, invests the character with a complex set of emotions and his acting reinforces his conflicted personality.

He showed up the other players in his ability to let the language flow naturally, revealing not only its beauty but also the inventiveness of the imagery.

Several others garbled their words, with their emotional expression often confounding understanding.

The use of the theatre in the round where actors often had their backs to some of the audience is a major impediment for some to hear the words at all.

The minimal set and lighting by Tony Rabbit and costumes by Elizabeth Whiting create a visual drama.  The stage floor covered in black sand was a cross between ashes and velvet and the red and black costumes give a rich physicality.

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