The Duchess [of Malfi]

May 22 2019 | By More

★★★★☆  Necessarily nightmarish

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Fri 17 May–Sat 8 Jun 2019
Review by Hugh Simpson

The blood-soaked events of The Duchess [of Malfi], a co-production between the Lyceum and the Citizens Theatre, are almost unwatchably intense at times. As a depiction of timeless and timely considerations, however, this production is hard to beat.

Zinnie Harris’s new version of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy is at once rooted in the original and decidedly modern in approach.

Angus Miller as Ferdinand and Kirsty Stuart as The Duchess. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

The story sticks closely to Webster’s – the widowed Duchess (a wonderfully drawn characterisation by Kirsty Stuart) seeks happiness with her steward Antonio (Graham Mackay-Bruce). This offends both the sensibilities and the bank balances of her brothers the Cardinal (a performance of chillingly matter-of-fact evil by George Costigan) and Ferdinand, unbalanced by desires he cannot comprehend (the contrastingly expansive Angus Miller,).

This leads to a spiral of violence, much of it carried out by the tragically conflicted Bosola, played with almost unbelievable intensity by Adam Best, whose extraordinary performance anchors the whole production.

On Tom Piper’s vertiginous set, with Oguz Kaplangi’s music led by Eleanor Kane’s plangent guitar and honeyed vocals, there seems to be a whole world played out. Comparatively minor characters such as Adam Tompa’s Delio, Leah Walker’s Julia and the maid Cariola (Fletcher Mathers) are given real substance. The use of members of the Lyceum’s Young Company gives yet another dimension.

hard to stomach

There are some uncertainties of tone, with a more dreamlike first act overtaken by what happens after the interval. The second half, in particular, features not only much of the promised ‘strong adult content’ but also disorienting electronic noise and lights and Jamie Macdonald’s video design, along with some events that many may find hard to stomach. While none of it is gratuitous, the slick modernity does lessen the impact a little after a while.

Leah Walker as Julia and George Costigan as The Cardinal. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic

However, the work as a whole is pretty well judged by Harris. That parenthesis in the title – to say nothing of the odd collisions between an apparently untouched 17th century setting and modern technology – might suggest uncertainty. This is not the case, as – just as with the contrasts between older-sounding, more poetic language and some urgently demotic modern usage – it is all thoroughly effective; the parallels between the concerns of Jacobean tragedy and today are frighteningly apparent.

Indeed, it is this that makes the ending (one of the most obvious departures from the original, seeking to salvage at least a modicum of hope) unsatisfactory.

too effectively portrayed

The howling, blind rage of male entitlement, seeking to deny women any agency – and threatening first what it professes to love, then itself, and finally its very world – has been too effectively portrayed. Any attempts at redemption seem to be simply spitting into the face of the oncoming catastrophe; any rallying call for a better world is just drowned in blood and nihilism.

This version is therefore horribly appropriate for our time. Which certainly does not make it an easy watch.

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Friday 17 May – Saturday 8 June 2019
Tues – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.00 pm
Information and tickets: Book here..
LYT Curtain Raiser – The Duchess [of Malfi]
Friday 31 May, 5.30pm.
The Lyceum Youth Theatre take to the main stage with a short performance in response The Duchess [of Malfi]. Free but ticketed: Book here.
Talk Show – The Duchess [of Malfi]
Friday 7 June, 5pm.
Why Do We Want Blood (Particularly the Blood of Women)
David Greig hosts a discussion around issues raised by The Duchess [of Malfi]. Confirmed guests: Val McDermid & Hannah Manktelow. Free but ticketed: Book here.

The Duchess [of Malfi] on tour:
Tramway, 25 Albert Drive, Glasgow G41 2PE 

Wednesday 4 – Saturday 21 September 2019.
Tues – Sat: 7.30pm; Matinees Sat 14, Sat 21: 2.30pm. Wed 18: 1.30pm.
Tickets and details at:

Kirsty Stuart as The Duchess. Photo credit Mihaela Bodlovic


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