According to playwright Zinnie Harris, whose new adaptation of John Webster’s great Jacobean revenge tragedy (loosely based on the life of sixteenth-century Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi) is currently showing at Edinburgh’s Lyceum, the crux of Webster’s original play is: ‘at your peril do you destroy women.’
Harris follows the sweep of Webster’s original plot where two brothers, the older Cardinal and younger Ferdinand, attempt to prevent their recently-widowed sister—the titular Duchess—from remarrying in order to preserve their inheritance of her estate. Unbeknownst to the brothers, however, the Duchess secretly marries Antonio, her household steward, and bears him twins before eventually being discovered. The degree of cruelty subsequently meted out to the Duchess by her two brothers is simply incomprehensible.
In Harris’s pared-back version, much of the Baroque extravagance of Webster’s text has been jettisoned—a streamlining echoed in Tom Piper’s rather elegantly spare grey and white set. Happily, though, glimpses of Jacobean wordplay do bust forth from time to time (most notably from the mouth of Adam Best’s fine Bosola) in what is an otherwise rich and poetic script. You can hear Harris’s love for Webster’s language in nearly every line.
Yet, where Webster’s Duchess of Malfi is an exploration of the treatment of women, its explorations are firmly rooted in the wonderfully bizarre tradition of Senecan revenge tragedy, and translating the product of such inspiration into a new work that speaks to contemporary conversations around the treatment and representation of women is no easy task.
Having said that, I have not the slightest problem with theatrical adaptations that make absolutely no claim to contemporary relevance. In fact, I’d prefer to have more staged adaptations which make no such claims—why should we not more fully submit to the strangeness and unfamiliarity of our predecessors?
But Harris has a stated interest in navigating a path between Webster’s meditation on the violence done to women and contemporary conversations on the same subject. But, there’s misogyny like the god-awful trolling on Twitter and then there’s misogyny like torturing and murdering your sister and her children because she secretly married without your permission.
What’s especially interesting about The Duchess of Malfi, in both Webster’s original and Harris’s adaptation, is that although the play is ostensibly a revenge tragedy turned on its head—with a female hero who has revenge taken upon her by her male relations, not for the act of having committed a shocking murder, but for the crime of marrying against their wishes—the result is effectively a study in different forms of masculinity, each of which is represented by a character objectionable in its own way.
Despite Harris’s attempt to inject hope into the end of her story (building on Webster’s original desire to ‘make a noble use of this great ruin’) with a gesture intended to break the cycle of male chauvinism and violence, not one of her male characters come out well in the end. Frankly, it’s nigh impossible to summon up hope after the history that’s played out before us. Nevertheless, Harris’s efforts have resulted in a superb retelling of this Jacobean classic.
The Duchess [of Malfi] plays at the Edinburgh Lyceum until 8 June, and transfers to Citizens Theatre, Glasgow in September. More info here.