The Duchess (of Malfi) review – indictment of patriachal power

They’re a pathetic lot, the men who hang around this Duchess of Malfi. There’s the narcissistic cardinal, the needy twin brother, the loveless spy and the nice-but-feeble husband. They all need a good talking-to.

The downside, in playwright-director Zinnie Harris’s bold reworking of the John Webster gore-fest, is you’d rather avoid the lot of them; their simple motivations and shallow emotional range some kind of poetic justice, perhaps, for so many centuries of underwritten female ciphers.

Full-scale Jacobean carnage … Angus Miller as Ferdinand and Kirsty Stuart in The Duchess of Malfi. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

The upside is it makes Kirsty Stuart in the title role seem all the more striking. As the recently widowed survivor of a miserable marriage, this duchess is a young woman determined to set her own agenda. She laughs at her prudish brothers as they call for her modesty, chooses her new partner on her own terms and stands resilient in the face of patriarchal punishment.

Alongside Fletcher Mathers, as her wise housekeeper, and Leah Walker, as the cardinal’s abused mistress, she is at the defiant centre of a play that becomes about the corrupting effect of unchecked male power.

As in her appropriation of The Oresteia in 2016, Harris reframes a canonical tragedy in terms of sexual politics. She not only draws attention to the injustice of repression, but also suggests the consequence of such inequality is mental breakdown and, in this case, full-scale Jacobean carnage. With so much male violence to depict, she struggles to hold the focus on the duchess, extending the echo from her tomb into a ghostly afterlife to keep her in play. But in a classy production, she wrestles intelligently and provocatively with Webster in a plea for balance and sanity.

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