Lucy Bell and Lucia Mastrantone in The Dutchess Of Malfi | Playhouse (Pic: Rush)

The Duchess of Malfi isn’t by Shakespeare. But it’s close. Written by John Webster in 1612, around the time ye olde Bill was about ready to be pensioned off, it’s the first time Bell Shakespeare has produced one of his plays which, as it happens, was an instant runaway success in its day and is regarded in the present one as among the best of Jacobean tragedies.

The Shakespeare connection is stronger still, since the play was first produced by the bard’s company, The King’s Men, in 1613 at The Globe, which had been burnt to a cinder the previous year. Could it have been by Webster, since Malfi’s predecessor, The White Devil, has less than beguiled the audience, which Webster modestly dismissed as “ignorant asses”?

Ailsa Piper and Hugh Colman have meticulously adapted the text, trimming the fat, peeling back the wallpaper and stripping away archaic references, to reveal heart, soul and meaning.

To begin, a large, round light descending from above the centre of the all-black stage bathes it in pale blue. It’s a bit all-in-the-family, but Lucy Bell is the Duchess. Mind you, with such a family, who’d complain? Noone can contend nepotism when there’s so much meritorious talent involved. We meet her in the throes of recent bereavement, but her widowhood has been, we gather, fairly swiftly assuaged by surrender to her rather charming and handsome steward, the redoubtable Antonio (Matthew Moore). Looking after the Duchess’ affairs has taken on a whole, new meaning. It seems her severe brothers have adjudged, like Hamlet, the distance between grief and freshly fleshly pleasures to be unseemly short. They take umbrage and action commensurate with the severity of their obsessive personalities.

Ajudge is the word, for one brother (David Whitney) is a cardinal and the other (Sean O’Shea) a judge. The other players are the Lucia Mastrantone, as The Duchess’ lady-in-waiting and confidante, Julia; and Ben Wood as ex-con, Daniel De Bosola, whose loyalty’s always for sale. Hey, a bloke’s gotta make a living!

The beefy Bosola, much lusted after by the married Julia, is commissioned by the brothers grim as an intelligencer, to ensure the Duchess obeys their order not to remarry. But not only does the recalcitrant girl secretly do just that, she bears Antonio’s child, to boot. Chalk one up for naughtiness. Bosola mightn’t be perceived, or portrayed, as the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s perspicacious enough to discern these truths, which he dutifully reports to Cardinal Sin and Judge Me Not. Antonio heads for the hills, courageously leaving his beloved at the mercy, such as it is, of her sociopathic siblings. They’re not beyond torture and again importune Bosola to do their dirty deeds; doubtless, dirt cheap. Having blindfolded and restrained her arms, the big B ramps the volume all the way up to 11, subjecting her to raucous heavy metal, via headphones. It’s veritable death by iPod.

Julia rescues her mistress from almost certain madness, but the predatory plotters have more in store. The embarrassment their sister has caused them can only be met, it seems, by strangulation. To his credit, Bosola hesitates, but nonetheless, unhappily for the Duchess, remains faithful to his job description. As women will be, Julia proves something of an enthusiastic amateur intelligencer herself. Then again, even among the most apathetic handmaidens, the murder of one’s boss is sure to come to one’s notice, sooner or later. She confronts the Cardinal High Horse, the Hypocrite (whom she’s been favouring sexually) with he knowledge. He shows his displeasure by having her kiss his crucifix, one more time, which he’s prepared earlier, with poison.

There’s nothing worse than unfinished business, be it papal or fraternal so the trumped-up bloodletting bishop bids the always obliging Bosola see Antonio off. Not so much from, say, the airport. More like this mortal coil. Resolving to spare Ant, Bosola devolves to a bubble-headed bungler, killing the poor fellow accidentally. Something akin to friendly fire, I s’pose. This peeves him and he exorcises his angst by running the two amigos through. This spree is choreographed brilliantly, with perpetrator and victims placed well apart on stage, but action and reaction effected as if there was physical communion. It steeply heightens the drama: one can almost feel the point and thrust of cold, hard steel ripping through yielding tissue.

Originally rewritten as Hellbent and performed by Red Stitch in Melbourne in 2006, Piper and Colman have tapered, groomed, refined and reinvented Webster’s otherwise unwieldy piece. It’s Reader’s Digest condensation in the best possible sense. With a paring knife, they’ve peeled back undigestible layers to reveal the full fragrance (or stench) and flavour (distaste?) of the fruit. John Bell has made some brave and compelling directorial decisions (such as the physical theatre described above) which are masterful. It seems to me Stephen Curtis’ stage design alludes to The Globe itself; not necessarily in any literal way, but in terms of a certain feeling. There are multiple doors, through which the cast come and go, which put me very much in mind of the tiered galleries of seating that define old world theatres in general. Despite, apparently, a nightmarish number of lighting cues, Hartley T. A. Kemp’s design is correspondingly simple and effective, to suit Bell’s laudable less-is-more penchant, as well as the rawness and intensity intrinsic to this work. Alan John’s composition and Steve Francis’ sound design are menacing in the way of classic noir, ‘though at one point I found the underscored musical presence distracted slightly from dialogue.

Bell’s decision to cast Wood as Bosola is, perhaps, more open to question. He seemed somewhat stiff in the role and his open slather on Aussie vernacular (something I’d generally welcome and lean towards) out-of-step with the rather more natural, restrained contemporaneity of the other characters. I applaud the boldness, but have sue reservation about the result. Not so, concerning his fellow players. All state-of-the-art actors, I reserve special mention for O’Shea who creates a monstrously complex judge, nibbling at the edges of outright madness; mercilessly cruel, conniving, a control freak torn between the impossibly high moral ground and sadistic depravity, at once boy and man, infantile and urbane. The judge’s seemingly ambiguous sexual disposition is expressed both through his craving for tactile affection from his brother and pedantic obsession with the minutiae of his sister’s sexlife. They vie tastily.

In some ways, the play and production is an more artful equivalent of proto-Peter Jackson schlock hatchet horror; a dark and seedy thriller; a Jacobean Underbelly. But it’s the complexities of character and morality that compel, fascinate and elevate it to more challenging intellectual and psychosocial plane. Truly, theatre doesn’t, if ever, get much better than this.

The details: The Dutchess Of Malfi is on at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until August 5. Tickets on the venue website.

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