Since the explosion of the #MeToo movement, theatre directors have been bringing to the fore the themes of patriarchal violence in everything from Shakespeare to Ibsen. Director Rebecca Frecknall’s production of The Duchess of Malfi takes this close to its logical conclusion with this unflinching, often outright horrific portrait of the terrible consequences of men assuming control over the lives of women.
John Webster’s 1613 play follows the young, widowed Duchess as she disregards the instruction of her brothers – at least one of whom, Ferdinand, is driven by a quasi-incestuous obsession – never to remarry. To add insult to injury, she chooses Antonio, a man far below her station, and sets about having a secret family with him.
Ferdinand takes it badly, and when his ambivalent hitman Bosola – a fine performance by Leo Bill – finally catches up with her, we’re subjected to an stomach-churning scene of him throttling her to death. This is no Ophelia quietly drowning herself offstage: it’s a minutes-long, eyes-bulging act of aggression so powerful in its awfulness that a ripple of gasps passed across the audience.
Lydia Wilson is something of a specialist in this area, having played Annabella in John Ford’s Renaissance drama ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and Cate in Sarah Kane’s Blasted. She was excellent in both, but reaches a whole other level as the eponymous Duchess. Her performance is electric, pivoting from willful and assertive, confidently batting away her brothers with sarcastic platitudes, to raw and broken as her life is turned upside down.
The sparse stage is dominated by a huge, sliding glass box, tiled and mic’d up, acting variously as a private space for clandestine meetings, and a brutal prison chamber into which we voyeuristically peer.
The production borrows from prestige TV drama, with vast title-cards projected between scenes – “A Birth”, “A Discovery” – and snatches of operatic music giving it the feel of an episode of Succession, albeit with fewer laughs. There are echoes of Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler in the stylised sparsity of the staging as well as the magnetic intensity of the central performance.
As in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the play suffers a little when its most interesting character is killed off with an hour to go. Frecknall partially solves this by having the Duchess, alongside the other murdered women in the story, smear themselves in pitch-black blood and stand like gruesome trophies in the glass box, mournfully watching the action from beyond the grave.
Frecknall was nominated for an Olivier Award for her excellent take on Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke at the Almeida last year. She may well win one for this, but it’s Wilson’s performance that will be remembered most fondly, being one of the most powerful and versatile in recent memory.