The Duchess of Malfi, White Bear Theatre, Kennington

24 Sep

Themes of silence and concealment run through The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster.  In the tiny venue of the White Bear Theatre, Kennington, Eyestrings Theatre’s production was visceral, stripping back the play to expose the frailty and brutality of the characters.

A pervading sense of unease began at the outset when the cast, already seated on chairs at the front as the audience came in, suddenly broke into wide, forced, almost deranged smiles, turning to the audience and making eye contact with individual audience members, which was unsettling, and provoked a fair amount of nervous laughter in the audience.

The Duchess of Malfi is a young widow, who is forbidden from marrying again by her brothers, the Cardinal and Ferdinand. The reasons for her brothers’ not wanting her to remarry may be attributed to a wish not to share their inheritance with her but there are other, more complex reasons at play, as there always are in Jacobean tradegy. By marrying Antonio, who is a steward, the Duchess shows that her motives for marriage are not political or strategic, but based on love and sexual attraction and it seems that this is one cause of her brothers’ chagrin. In the world of the play, female sexuality is threatening to men, something to be suspicious of, Ferdinand referring to her disdainfully as a “lusty widow”.

Is the Duchess a feminist figure? Perhaps her motives, which are simply to be happy, to marry and have a family, would not be seen as particularly feminist now, but it certainly takes courage to rebel against her brothers’ wishes. “I through frights and threatenings will assay/This dangerous venture,” she says, determined to get what she wants in spite of them. In the context of the play, she is asserting her sexuality and subverting the ideals of power and class by marrying, in secret, beneath her, and against her male relatives wishes, which makes her a fairly radical figure by contemporary standards. Furthermore, her “crime” is thrown into sharp relief against the hypocrisy of the Cardinal, a man of the clergy who is involved with a married woman, Julia.

The brothers fear the Duchess’s power should she remarry, as a woman, alone, chaste and silent, is not threatening to them. Kelly Hotten, who plays the Duchess, cut a slight figure in a close-fitting grey gown, emphasised at times by her drawing in her shoulders, making her appear bird-like and fragile. In contrast, Ferdinand, played by Orlando James, is muscular and, in his final scenes, appears without a shirt, as if to emphasise his masculinity. However, by this point he has shown himself to be fragile is in his mind, as he succumbs to madness through his guilt, finally being murdered by Bosola, the servant he had commissioned to murder the Duchess. This physical strength/mental fragility of Ferdinand contrasts nicely with the Duchess’s physical frailty but strong mindedness. In contrast to Ferdinand’s mad ranting at his end, the Duchess is calm and quiet. As Bosola says of her, “Her silence, methinks, expresseth more than if she spake.” Also, her death is a kind of symbolic silencing, as she is strangled, she says, “Go tell my brothers, when I am laid out,/They then may feed in quiet”. As well as the Duchess herself being silenced, so is Julia, who is murdered by the Cardinal to prevent her from revealing the fact that the brothers order the murder. Also, Cariola, the Duchess’ maid is murdered mid-plea for her life, almost in mid-sentence.

The only male in the play who does not wish the silence of women, and the Duchess in particular, is Antonio, “You only will begin then to be sorry when she doth end her speech,” he says at the beginning of the play. However, being direct about her desires as a woman is difficult. When she declares her love for him, she speaks of her frustration that as women, “we/Are forc’d to express our violent passions/In riddles, and in dreams.” Female sexuality is a taboo subject in this play and the Duchess is the sole figure to rebel against this and act on her desires. As she says to Antonio, “This is flesh and blood, sir/’Tis not the figure cut in alabaster”.

The Duchess of Malfi is on at The White Bear Theatre, Kennington, until 30 September.

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