When one whittles down the plot of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, it certainly does seem to resemble a modern day soap opera. When uptown widow the Duchess, finds love again in downtown boy Antonio and marries him in secret, her two power-hungry brothers – one weirdly incestuous – exact their blood-thirsty revenge when she suddenly gets pregnant, destroying the lives of everyone around them, including themselves.
Director Cara Kenny certainly revelled in drawing out the modern relevance of Webster’s Seventeenth Century tale, peppering the stage with ever-evolving newspaper articles from the Malfi Mail – the first headline reading ‘Widow Woes’ – and incorporating magazines as contextually appropriate props where necessary.
But though the play ultimately succeeds in reminding us of the modern day relevance of this Renaissance tragedy, for such a supposedly “bold reimagining”, we might have expected a little more inventiveness. In “an age of non-stop information”, it seems odd that the Duchess’ will wasn’t written on an iPad, just as the urgent letter which Bosola sends to Rome wasn’t updated to an e-mail, or even a Facebook message.
Even the Duchess’ monologues could have been reimagined as a series of anonymous blog posts, to illustrate further how “the boundaries between the public and the private are increasingly blurred”. But alas, the tale’s modernisation became more and more diluted as it went on, though the idea itself still holds great merit and validity.
In particular, the sex-reversed casting of Bex Watson in the originally male role of Bosola, a malcontented and murderous social critic, is an insightful and yielding interpretation. When juxtaposed with the Duchess herself, Bosola is able to offer an alternative to the gender-constrained role enforced by the media, in demonstrating how a woman may defy such stereotypes by being as deceitful and opportunistic as a man. Hamish Forbes as the tender-hearted Antonio provides an effective contrast to Watson’s grittiness.
Even Niall Docherty’s Ferdinand – who somehow manages to make incestuous lust humorous – seems somewhat emasculated by his lack of control over his sister the Duchess. Higgins, too, performs admirably in her role as the poised and steely Duchess, and is arguably the most compelling actor on the stage, hitting both the comedic and tragic targets set out for her character in the script with great artfulness and precision.
Despite some occasional amateurish errors, their performances were entertaining and the standard was generally high. Higgins in particular was admirably polished. Though they could have pushed their modernisation agenda further, the cast and crew have provided a thought-provoking show which is certainly worth seeing.
The Duchess of Malfi runs until Saturday at the BT Studio.