John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi is a highly underrated play that is rarely performed today. This Jacobean play is not an easy one to stage. It is horrifically, brutally violent, and incredibly uncomfortable to watch. As Shakespeare’s contemporary, Webster’s language can seem complex and quite outdated (there is a strange metaphor about tennis balls). Unlike Shakespeare, Webster didn’t coin many of the phrases we say today, so the language may seem impenetrable. However, you don’t have to understand every spoken word to comprehend the sheer horror of Webster’s revenge tragedy.
This production is staged by students in their final year at Manchester School of Theatre.
Widowed at a young age, the Duchess of Malfi (Hannah Brownlie) decides to secretly marry her lover, Antonio (Bailey Brook), defying her brothers, Ferdinand (Matt Pettifor) and the Cardinal (Andrew Dawson), who want her to remain chaste, protecting their family’s honour. When they hear of their sister’s affair, they launch a horrific plot of revenge against her and her lover. They hire a mercenary, Bosola (Paddy Stafford), to carry out their brutal schemes. After beginning in a hopeful light, with the widowed Duchess remarrying, the play quickly descends into a bloodbath.
Hannah Brownlie is magnificent as the stoically defiant Duchess. At the beginning of the play, Brownlie brilliantly captures her character’s naivety, without compromising her integrity. She portrays an affectionate excitement at wooing her lover, and becomes swept up in their whirlwind romance. Her relationship with Bailey Brook‘s Antonio appears so genuine that you start wishing for a happy ending for them both. Sadly, that doesn’t happen.
When ambushed at the roadside, the Duchess sacrifices herself and is arrested, whilst Antonio flees with their eldest child. Both Brownlie and Brook exquisitely depict the agony and despair of having to separate, and their parting is truly heartrending. When the Duchess is mentally and physically tortured by her brothers, Brownlie’s performance transcends to another level, as she faces horrific abuse that is harrowing to watch. Throughout this, Brownlie retains her character’s composure, defiantly declaring “I am Duchess of Malfi still!“, refusing to show weakness in front of her brothers.
The Duchess’ brothers are brilliantly portrayed by both actors. Andrew Dawson is delightfully sinister as the Cardinal and Matt Pettifor is outstanding as the Duke, Ferdinand, who is a difficult character to get right. He has an unhealthy obsession with his sister, imagining her in the arms of a “strong-thighed bargeman“. Pettifor renders this by repeatedly stroking his sister’s arms, getting far too close to her, becoming almost incestuous. His character’s behaviour is both intimidating and unsettling, but provides some reasoning behind his profound jealousy at his sister’s marriage to Antonio. In the wrong hands, Ferdinand’s lycanthropy can seem ridiculously absurd. However, Pettifor’s full-bodied, violent convulsions make his wolf-like behaviour shocking and incredibly disturbing.
Credit also needs to be given to Paddy Stafford for his sublime performance as Bosola, a troubled, multifaceted character. Stafford perfectly captures all sides to Bosola’s personality, forging a character arc that leads to redemption. Beginning as an untrustworthy spy, Stafford almost spits out his dialogue, in disgust at those whose status rises above him, the people whom he deplores.
Stafford copes brilliantly with the physically demanding aspects of playing this character, impressively lifting a dead body whilst rising from the floor to stand up. He also endows Bosola with a sadistic enjoyment in murdering people, which is quite disturbing. I love the fact that he pins his long hair back with a knife blade, meaning he is armed at all times. It’s a nice touch!
In the latter acts of The Duchess of Malfi, Bosola experiences redemption, and strives to seek vengeance on behalf of those he has killed. Stafford’s transformation is astonishing. With pain and regret etched into his character, he weeps in remorse, gaining sympathy from the audience. Bosola’s thoughts then turn bloody and he concedes to anger and revenge, notably winning the audience over, bringing them onto his side. It is a remarkable performance that deserves applauding.
This production literally pulls no punches with the levels of violence on stage. When several characters are strangled to death, the ferocity in the victims’ struggles, and their prolonged, brutal strangulation make The Duchess of Malfi truly horrifying to watch. Fight director, Renny Krupinski makes the action look convincing, which is impressive in such an intimate venue, but also invents new ways for characters to die, which keeps the play fresh for those who have seen it before. I studied Webster’s tragedy in university and honestly wasn’t expecting a character to be strangled with the stage’s lighting cables!
Manchester School of Theatre have shown that The Duchess of Malfi thoroughly deserves to be staged more often than it is. This is a horrifically violent, devastating, and appalling tragedy that excels in all areas of production. It is exquisitely performed by all the actors involved, and technically surpasses expectations, from lighting and sound, to direction. I wish I could have watched it again, but its entire run was sold out!