'The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king' Act II, Scene II, Hamlet
Third year English students, Harry Petty and Lizzie Annis, chat to me about their experience directing Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi and bringing it to life for a modern audience.
Q: Why the Duchess of Malfi?
A: Harry: I had seen it twice: once at the Old Vic and then at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse. I read it and then formed the idea to put it into dystopia and play the Malcontent as a woman instead of a man. I felt there was something to say with this play. Shakespeare is viewed as ‘the one’ and has resonance in every era, but Webster’s fame has gone up and down. The Duchess of Malfi resonates especially in the post-feminist revolution because its female lead highlights the grotesqueness and violence of a misogynistic society.
Q: What was challenging about bringing this Jacobean play to life?
A: Harry: It was a challenge to tailor an old play to the audience and successfully deliver its the essence of it messages. We needed to be aware of the modern audience and their sensibilities. Jacobean tragedies draw upon gore, blood, sex and violence and in different eras this was dismissed as base, low and gratuitous. However, Jacobean tragedies have a real resonance in this society as we are a society that is consuming and interested in these taboos.
Lizzie: Displaying the madness in the play was really difficult as in the past madness was a source of entertainment and was not treated in the same way as it is today.
Q: How then did you cater to the modern audience?
A: Harry: We changed the dramatic device of the Dumb show in which the Duchess was captured, psychologically tortured, and surrounded by madmen. Instead we created a clockwork orange style video, using a voiceover to display the rich language of the mad men and thus base it in the text. We also used movement which gave something for a modern audience to grab onto as the emotions and stakes of the play are taken to such an extreme level.
Lizzie: Yes, we incorporated movement into the play which set it into an emotional context and distilled the emotions that had come out of the preceding act.
Q: How did you engage the cast with the play?
A: Harry: We held one-to-one sessions with the cast to read through the lines so we could unpack Webster’s bizarre metaphors and similes as it is noticeable when an actor doesn’t know they are saying.
Lizzie: These sessions fostered a nice atmosphere within the cast as everyone felt like they could speak their mind and if they had a suggestion or their own interpretation they felt free to offer it.
Q: Plans for the future?
A: In a First Dates style moment, they looked at each other, laughed and agreed they would like to work together again. With Harry potentially taking on a MA in Directing and Lizzie a keen writer, it looks like directing together in the future is definitely an option.