Hellbent: Bell Shakespeare’s 'The Duchess of Malfi'

“I know death has ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits, and 'tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways.”
 – The Duchess [IV, 2]

Elizabethan tragedies – and by extension, their natural Jacobean successors – are a strange bunch, all fire-and-brimstone, hellfire and damnation, a never-ending downward spiral of revenge and death and murder that ends only through the extinguishing of the lives of the play’s characters. Of all of the Elizabethan-Jacobean tragedies, none are better or more potently – delightfully, malevolently, gleefully – delicious than Shakespeare’s: Titus Andronicus, beneath the innumerable killings and murders and barbaric acts, is darkly comic and is an absolute blast; Macbeth is a potent examination of power, and what happens when you become drunk on its allure and promise; Othello is devastating in its misrepresentation of evidence, while King Lear and Hamlet are perhaps the pinnacles, the generally-considered perfections, of the form. Shakespeare was not just writing for himself, he was writing in reaction to those that had gone before him – Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd – and those that were writing around him – Ben Johnson, John Webster. Of all of them, it is Webster whose plays perhaps took Shakespeare’s achievements and reverted them to the glory-days of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, denying the dramatic tragedy form of Shakespeare’s elegance and finesse, and restoring to it much of the robust and blatant disregard for humanity, along with all the bile and brimstone that one could muster. (If you’ve seen Shakespeare In Love, you’d already be familiar with John Webster; he’s the street urchin kid who’s often seen outside the theatres, playing with the cats and mice, and who facilitates Thomas Kent’s unmasking as Viola de Lesseps.)
This presentation of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was written in 2006 by Ailsa Piper and Hugh Colman and first performed by the Red Stitch Actors Company under the title of ‘Hellbent.’ It’s a pretty accurate description of the play, to be honest, as the two brothers scheme and plot the maintenance of their sister’s chastity, her subsequent downfall and eventual death, along with that of her maid and husband (and former steward).
It’s a lean compression of an otherwise lengthy play that loses none of its power, although in its filleting, it perhaps becomes too brutal and apoplectic; Colman and Piper coerced Webster’s original cast of fifteen down to a taut six, a move which worked to the play’s benefit, and left me wondering just who else could possibly be needed in the story. Webster, writes Kenneth Tynan (quoted in Bell Shakespeare’s program), was “not concerned with humanity. He is the poet of bile and brainstorm, the sweet singer of apoplexy; ideally, one feels, he would have had all his characters drowned in a sea of cold sweat… [drawing] nourishment from Bedlam.” In a time when women are still killed for dishonouring their faith, families or culture, Webster’s play echoes around us perhaps all too chillingly, too close for comfort. As a production, it could have perhaps been a bit tighter, a bit leaner; as it was, the uninterrupted 110 minutes dragged at times, the narrative sluggish to begin with and, like all good [revenge] tragedies, fell over itself at the end in its impatient urge to be rid of its detestable and inexcusable villains. Perhaps the weakest link was Alan John’s score, a mix of synthesized instruments and eerie sound design, punctuated with a too-brief tender melody for the intimacy between the Duchess and her husband, and a over-melodramatic strobe-fuelled rave track for the Duchess’ torment by the Bedlamites. Once the king of theatrical music, John’s work of late seems to have slipped past forgettable into barely noticeable, his minimalistic pieces which subtract from a production rather than add to it. (The only exceptions that spring to mind are his music for Bell Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (March 2011) and the interlude music for Belvoir’s revival of The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (2011).)
The already-small Playhouse stage was shaped into a triangle bound by two sheer black walls, meeting in a corner upstage, like an open book. But, unlike the open book, the mood and impression was hard to read, impossible almost, without the players to fill its space and give it scope. Five tall thin doorways, cleverly concealed and facilitated within the walls, allowed for smooth and swift exits and entrances, while the sole item of furniture – a white Ottoman – became a bed, sacrificial altar, prison, plinth, illuminated from above by a disc of light. Very much a dark and shadowy production, the predominant colour being various diverse shades of black and grey, the harsh white of the Ottoman perhaps read as the Duchess’s virtue or innocence, her uncomfortable power within her familial circle. Perhaps building off the line in IV,2 (quoted at the top of this piece), director John Bell and designer Stephen Curtis created a set that was slick in its simplicity, symbolically representative of a cage or a prison, “ten-thousand several doors” taking the characters to their various deaths (one strangling, one poisoning, three stabbings), pivoting on such “geometrical hinges,” that the characters are bound both ways – to heaven or hell, purgatory in the Catholic sense of the term (“purgatory … locally contains of heaven, or hell; there's no third place in't.” [I,1]).
The show ultimately belongs to Lucy Bell. The first scene or two seemed to linger and meander too long without a clear sense of purpose or direction, until Bell started speaking. As she moved about the stage – all girlish glee one moment, tender and passionate the next, defensive and impassioned another – it was clear that she was a Bell, one who could command the stage seemingly effortlessly. “She is incandescent,” writes Deborah Jones in The Australian, “nowhere more so than in her death scene, in which she is by turns skittish, playful, desperate and, ultimately, transcendent… [While] Bosola is the instrument of [her] death, [he eases] her passage with deeply affecting blokey tenderness.” “Hers is a fine performance, full of nuance, light and shade,” adds Diana Simmonds in StageNoise. “She is [an] Everywoman from any age. And this production deserves her – its clarity, poetry and essential truths are as absorbing as one could hope for; it would be difficult to wish for more.”
While the production takes a while to find its stride, once there, any number of shadows and multiplying villanies do swarm upon the stage, manifested through the Duchess’s corrupt brothers – her twin the Judge (Sean O’Shea), and the lascivious Cardinal (David Whitney). Delighting in the horrors and terrors of Webster’s densely-packed images and already-compacted language, the brothers spin a web of danger, unease, and malevolence around them, like the ever-controlling spiders they think they are, until their right-hand man, the assassin Bosola (a bear-like and warm Ben Wood), eventually ensnares them in their own deviance. “Once in its stride, [The Duchess of Malfi] persuasively deals with the many sexual encounters and Grand Guignol touches central to the piece, [and] there’s a heart-stopping solution to staging the trick by which the Duchess thinks Antonio dead,” reminiscent of Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, or Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, a style in which John Bell seems to delight in.
In trying to bring my thoughts to a conclusion, I cannot ignore the fact that Webster’s play seemed at times to be riffing on Shakespeare’s famous speeches, echoes of Hamlet’s ‘What piece of work is a man’ speech just one among many noticeable homages. Whereas Shakespeare’s language is elegant and clear, Webster’s – much like his concerns – is brutally blank, condensed to the point of compression, his images densely packed and all-too-precise. While Colman and Piper’s editing is concise and clear, their dramaturgical choices of conflating characters and streamlining the passage of time are sensible and make handsome work of Webster’s maelstrom. In less-articulate hands, the production could have descended into a kind of parody of itself and its lineage, but John Bell once again proves his mettle against the spiraling web of madness of Jacobean tragedy and creates a stylish and impressive production (not least as a showcase for his daughter, Lucy, as the titular Duchess). Ultimately, though, it reminded me of why Shakespeare has transcended the brightest heaven of invention, and Webster only wrote two plays, why Shakespeare really is a better writer than most people can dream of. Webster, for instance, “knows nothing… of the tenderness and pleasant fantasy of Shakespeare. It was mankind’s anguish and evil alone that captured [Webster’s] imagination.” If, as T.S. Eliot describes, “Webster was much possessed by death, and saw the skull beneath the skin,” then Shakespeare was, perhaps, much possessed by life, and saw the human inside the monster, the devil within the saint. And that is why Shakespeare lasts, has lasted, will last.

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