Having studied this play for a second year English module, I was intrigued for the High Wall Theatre’s interpretation of it. As such a classically and canonically considered text in English heritage, many expected, or perhaps wanted, a faithful adaptation. But the best art shakes up the world a little.
The theatre company advertises the audience to witness the Duchess’ downfall- her ‘unconventional marriage’ – I believed this was merely going to be unconventional in the Renaissance sense. That is, a lustful widow, who has already experienced man and sex, rebels against her royal blood to marry her lowly servant Antonio. In the director Harry Kingscott’s world of warped gender subversion, this Duchess marries her female servant, bearing the same name Antonio, and has three children by her. It’s puzzling to consider whether switching the gender between the Duchess’s maid Cariola and her servile husband Antonio collides two worlds- the Renaissance and the contemporary – or are we supposed to accept this dramatization setting as the 17th century still?
A homosexual marriage as a mere editorial and script error, or has the court failed to identify the gender of Antonio, or are these characters really that forward thinking? Either way, it is testament to the traditions of the theatre, that we first accept that an actress can play a male, but it astounds us when issues of homosexual relations are not addressed. It is merely announced that this is a lesbian marriage by use of pronouns. And I kind of love that. That is the way it should be; it should cause us no more concern.
Admittedly I booked The Duchess of Malfi unknowing that productions by this South West theatre company combines marital arts training with interpretive movement to revitalise anachronistic stories. I wanted to pay £6 so that I wouldn’t have to re-read the play for my exam in May. And everyone else seemed to have the same idea- my seminar group constituted the majority of the audience last night. I’m not a fan of interpretive dance; it’s pretentious, and it deserves mockery. But this worked beautifully. The cast’s slickness of direction was flawless and balletic. The choreography was outstanding, and heavily conveyed metaphoric significance. For example, in the scene where the Duchess goes into labour, the cast collaborate as if the birth is a joint effort. Their movements seem bursting and uncontained, reiterating the Renaissance sexualisation and degradation of pregnancy.
I cannot recommend experiencing this for yourselves enough. In an intimate theatre
For me, this interpretation hit home how sexual Webster’s work is. Originally I considered Ferdinand’s (the Duchess’s twin) obsession with his sister’s sexuality as politically motivated, but with latent incestuous content. I thought he was driven by maintaining aristocratic lineage, ensuring that his blood remains unpolluted by common suitors. The potency of the chemistry between the twins in this production was uncomfortable and dark. There seemed a pungently mutual attraction, illustrated by eroticised dance.
I cannot recommend experiencing this for yourselves enough. In an intimate theatre, the audience is drawn into the sensuality of the choreography to fully delve into Jacobean pastimes.