By Sophia Whitfield
Jacobean dramatist John Webster wrote The Duchess of Malfi in 1612. Opinions are divided on whether or not he was one of the greatest playwrights or simply irrelevant.
Webster is best known for two tragedies,The White Devil, which was a flop in 1612 and The Duchess of Malfi, which played to acclaim in 1613 at the newly built Globe Theatre.
The Duchess of Malfi is a stunning piece of theatre, a brooding tragedy, portraying power plays with black comedy.
The Duchess of Malfi is a young widow forbidden to remarry by her brothers. The Cardinal and the Judge, her brothers, place an ex-convict, Bosola, in their sister’s house to ensure she abides by their orders. The Duchess defies her brother’s wishes and, in secret, marries her steward Antonio and bears him a son.
Lucy Bell gives a stunning performance as the wronged Duchess in this gripping production. There is no interval; the performance goes for one hour and 50 minutes allowing the tension to build to the final fateful moment. Matthew Moore, a familiar face at Bell Shakespeare, plays her husband, Antonio, with quiet gentleness.
The set is minimalist, dark and clean reflecting the tragedy of the story. There is only one piece of furniture, a white circular sofa in the centre of the stage. The black background and dim lighting makes the centerpiece a feature and most of the action revolves around it.
Lucy Bell expertly combines tragedy and humour in her role as the Duchess. She is playful at the start of the play when seducing her steward Antonio and displays stoicism in the moments before her strangulation. She is defiant and humble at the end, a contrast to her former playful imperious self.
Sean O’Shea and David Whitney play the two brothers, with strength. David Whitney as the lecherous Cardinal while Sean O’Shea portrays the weaker brother who descends quickly into insanity after the death of his sister. Ben Wood brings tenderness to the part of Bosola as he struggles with his unconscionable deeds.
There is much to admire in this production. A simple telling of a tragic tale. By keeping it simple the themes of revenge, misuse of power and the status of women are allowed to flourish, taking centre stage.
The Duchess of Malfi is playing in Sydney at The Sydney Opera House, Playhouse until August 5.
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