The Dutchess of Malfi
John Webster’s Dutchess of Malfi, probably based on actual events during the sixteenth century, begins as a love story, with a Duchess who marries beneath her class, and ends as a grisly tragedy when her two brothers seek their revenge, destroying themselves in the process.
The play has been mocked by modern critics for the excessive violence and horror in its later scenes. But the complexity of characterization, particularly Bosola and the Duchess, and Webster’s use of language are usually said to give it a continuing interest.
In the version directed by Philip Franks at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, the action of the play is transferred to post-war Italy as the state is throwing off its fascist past and preparing for another version of the brave new world.
But it didn’t work for me. The central character leads a doomed life with her lover and their children, surrounded as they are, by greed, treachery and lies. Imogen Stubbs as the Dutchess of Malfi searches deep inside herself but still can’t make us love her, or even garner a few shreds of empathy. Although the sets work well the course of the play is confused by the director’s hazy vision, and the placing of a video sequence in the Dutchess’s dungeon does not work well in a play where the Cardinal’s mistress is killed by a poisoned bible.
And if you are going to bring a play ‘up-to-date’ by substituting guns for knives, you had better make absolutely sure that the prompts work and that the back-stage explosive reports go off at the same time as the killer pulls the trigger.
At the end of the day, though, the play itself is at fault. The course of the plot is highly improbable and difficult to believe. And melodrama is no longer to our taste and is very difficult to hide, especially in a script that is built around it.