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Theatre Review: The Duchess [of Malfi] ****

Scott Purvis reviews an impressive, timely production.

Theatre is a courtroom to try the crimes of our times in front of a public jury. And few recent social crimes have been so insidious and so pervasive as the systematic abuse of females by men in power. It's right, therefore, that the Citizens Theatre's Year of Women season bangs its gavel on John Webster's story of The Duchess of Malfi.

Reimagined in the 1960s but still feeling like a Jacobean revenger's tragedy, Zinnie Harris' close-adaptation follows the story of a wealthy widow who has the audacity to pursue a life of independent sexual freedom and, most appalling, choice. Her two conniving brothers watch from the shadows as she shapes her own life, bitter with bile at the thought they could have on their noble reputations besmirched by a woman. What begins as a relatively straightforward soap opera of a family drama in act one develops towards an enthralling and devastating conclusion - the tension rises as the blood rises and there is little vindication for anyone in a world strangled by mens' hands.

The performances of the play's small cast are entirely brilliant, especially as the piece progresses. George Costigan is terrifying as the Duchess' brother, the corrupt Cardinal, an icy, manipulative and logical performance which lives in the red tones of Ben Ormerod's lighting designs. He has all the sleaze of a seedy politician and carries the brutality of his evil with a restrained smirk scratched onto his face.

As Ferdinand, the other brother, Angus Miller is the explosion of anger, an unrestrained mind wrecked and wracked by guilt which collapses spectacularly. His anxious, jerky performance feels like Lady Macbeth's descent into madness and is burdened with an energetic mania.

Adam Best's performance as Bosola, a servant sent to spy on the Duchess, is perhaps the most psychologically interesting of the evening. The former assassin is an unexpected victim of toxic masculinity, trying to push himself into the favour of those rich men who can support him in the only way he knows how - sheer brute force. Best's excellent performance is fraught, burning with hulking anger in moments and crying like a child in others, his head spun by the confusing manipulations of the powerful and society's expectations of working class men.

But it is the women of the piece who hammer home the play's themes most horrifically. Kirsty Stuart's Duchess is progressively impressive, moving from the liberated freedom of an empowered woman to the claustrophobic entrapment of her end. There is so much lightness in the use of her voice in the early scenes, and yet so much dark humour, that the destruction of this happy bird feels all the more devastating.

Fletcher Mathers, too, is very good as the Duchess' confidant and maid, and her spell as a doctor during Ferdinand's madness is a masterclass in movement. There's also an unexpected treat in onstage musician Eleanor Kane, her soulful singing bringing the play's saddest scenes a strange redemption.

And that is a vindication which we crave but never truly get. Tom Piper's stark design of the piece is literally a prison and devoid of any hope, especially in the 1984 nightmare of act two's stark halogen lighting. The tense final scenes feel like they have been directed by Tarantino, and the gore does grow. Still, this is a piece of theatre with a huge message for its audiences which bubbles frothily in the bloodbath of an old story.

Director and writer Zinnie Harris has built a Duchess for 2019 by adapting the text Webster's of 1613 play with light fingers - if #timesup now, didn't audiences four hundred years ago notice, or care, about the abuse of women? And what can, and should, we as modern audiences do make the society a fairer place for all sexes?

The Duchess [of Malfi] runs at the Tramway until September 21.

Tags: theatre

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