Inconstant Identities on the South Bank: The

Inconstant Identities on the South Bank: The
Duchess of Malfi and the Homeless Visitor
Phyllida Lloyd and I are sipping tea on the periphery of the National
Theatre’s forecourt, when a homeless man approaches and asks for some
money, time and attention. He thrusts forth his current reading material: “I
stole it from the bookstall over there,” he explains, before reassuring, “I’m
an honest person really.” We listen attentively to his life story so far; he
reciprocates as Phyllida and I talk about her recent Duchess of Malfi.1 When
he leaves us, to rustle up more funds to stay overnight at a local refuge,
Phyllida and I share our contradictory feelings. Was he a saint in the guise
of a tramp, some divine angelic agent sent to test the strength of our
humanity; or was he a demon, scanning his maleficent eye on our purses and
We talk about the identity of Webster’s enigmatic Duchess: an almost
shape-shifting figure whose perception of self is conditioned by the people
around her, including her offstage audiences. Webster’s major skill is to
reflect the identities of those people in the duchess’ presence, as well as to
play roles to which others have become accustomed. Was our recent visitor
godlike or satanic; and is the Duchess an icon of womanhood (almost
deified by Antonio) or a contemptible whore (as viewed by Ferdinand)? Are
both striking personalities a rich blur of apparent extremes and, more
importantly, what do our reactions say about us and our view of others,
both factual and fictionalised?
Phyllida does not wish an easy time on her actors and audiences, and
her decision to set The Duchess of Malfi in present-day Italy encouraged all
participants to view the play, with its preoccupations of death, gore and
incest, as non-Jacobean and vitally contemporary. For her, it is not a play
deeply-rooted in the period that produced it, but a modern parable that
forces us to ask ourselves profound and difficult questions: it does not
belong to another time and place; it has no historical distance; and it is not
safe. If plays belonging to other times and places are to be meaningful
today, they have to be set in a contemporary context, or at least audiences
must be given the chance to contextualise such plays with recent and current
The production was first performed at the Lyttelton Theatre on 18 January 2003 and
ran to 24 February, before embarking on a tour: 18-22 March at the Lowry, Salford; 2529 March at Malvern Festival Theatre; and 1-5 April at the King's Theatre, Edinburgh. It
returned to the Lyttelton on 6 May and closed on 27 May. Phyllida and I met on Friday
13 June 2003 on the square and terrace of the National Theatre.
events, through allusions drawn by the director. “Context is all in theatre,”
Phyllida reminds me.
Focus, intensity and claustrophobia are demanded by Webster’s
meditation on the transition between life and death, and Phyllida’s decision
to stage it without interval, with almost-always omnipresent cast, created an
appropriate theatrical context for performers and audiences alike. Treating
the script as something of a screenplay in rehearsal, cutting and rearranging
with the assistance of Karl Miller (her dramaturg), facilitated a fast and
thrilling pace, with the excitement and urgency often provoked by sharp
film editing.2 In the rehearsal process, Phyllida and her actors found a
solution to a challenge posed by the final scene of the play, when the stage
becomes littered with a pile of mutilated corpses: each of Webster’s
characters died one line before the end of their final speech, and spoke their
closing words after rising from death before joining the souls of others who
died before them. All were lit in small pools of light as they sat on a
staircase that ran the width of the performance space: isolated and passive,
they witnessed the remaining moments of the play. Janet McTeer’s
Duchess, who had accepted her death as an almost welcomed release from
the hell she was living, sat centre-stage and constantly reminded us of her
continuing, post-death influence on the play. Her absence of focused
identity and almost constant passivity in life continued in death.
The proscenium arch of the theatre, along with the clearly defined
distinction between audience and performance spaces, provided something
of a cinematic experience. Video footage projected onto a moveable glass
screen added to the filmic dimension of the production; however, visible
stage lighting prevented the complete illusion of watching a film, and was a
constant reminder of the theatricality of the production and the metatheatricality of the play:
DUCHESS […] I account this world a tedious theatre,
For I do play a part in ’t ’gainst my will.
Thou wretched thing of blood,
How came Antonio by his death?
BOSOLA In a mist: I know not how –
Such a mistake as I have often seen
In a play.
The cast members were invited to offer their own cuts throughout rehearsals and the
run itself. Cutting and rearranging was an ongoing process.
Indeed, the almost constant presence of the actors in the performance space
encouraged audiences to view the onstage world as a fictional construction.
However, despite Mark Thompson’s ‘Brechtian’3 design, there were
moments in the performance when the emotional overcame the cerebral.
One such moment took place in III.5, when the Duchess and her children
are separated: Antonio must flee with them to escape the wrath and danger
of the Duchess’ two brothers, both of whom disapprove of their sister’s
second marriage. Janet’s Duchess had already established a close bond with
her children in an interpolated sequence that immediately preceded III.2.
The children played boisterously with their toys and their mother, who was
clearly ecstatic by their very presence.
Here, the children and offstage audience perceived Janet as mother;
later, Will Keen’s psychotic pill-popping Ferdinand would view her as whore
(despite her attempt to act sister and friend to him). Charles Edwards’
charming yet passionate Antonio developed his perception of her from
employer to lover; Lorcan Cranitch’s discontented Bosola understood her in
the only terms he could: as an image-conscious aristocrat and potential
murder victim. Janet personified the passivity of Webster’s Duchess as she
reflected the personalities who surrounded her. Far from switching roles
according to whoever was near her, others around her – including the
offstage audience – perceived Janet as motherly, whore-like, loving and
aristocratic. The Duchess was something of an artist’s blank canvass, upon
which each character displayed an insight into his or her identity.
The void at the centre of the Duchess’ characterisation, and her
ability to reflect the personalities of others in her presence, was one of the
primary attractions that drew Phyllida close to the play, specifically to its
heroine.4 Even when Janet proclaimed ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’,5 after
having endured traumatising drug-induced nightmares (replacing the
antiquated ‘masque of madness’ of IV.2), she was still defining herself
through another’s identity: that of the Duchess’ dead husband. If Phyllida’s
recent rediscovery of Antony and Cleopatra, another of the ‘great plays for
girls’,6 coincides with the availability of Janet, then another mythical figure
of contradiction and changeability (given new life by another Renaissance
playwright), will invite multiple interpretations of a single and enigmatic
Phyllida employed the term as a way to describe the design of the production when we
met. However, she used it with caution, as a shorthand term of convenience: she did not
wish to direct the play as if she were Bertolt Brecht himself.
Phyllida first experienced the play when she studied it at A-level. She has been
fascinated by it ever since for its moments of ‘near-Shakespearean beauty’, particularly
the rich characterisation of the Duchess.
IV.2.142. All quotations from the play are taken from John Russell Brown’s Revels
edition (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1974).
Phyllida’s terminology; she is constantly searching for such plays, as well as those
conventionally seen as unperformable or, as someone once described The Duchess of Malfi
to her, ‘a director’s graveyard’.
personality in a contemporary theatrical context. Just as Phyllida and I will
never be able to definitively interpret our homeless visitor’s identity,
directors and audiences of Webster’s Duchess and Shakespeare’s Cleopatra,
as well as the actors performing the roles, have been and will continue to be
provided with a multitude of theatrical possibilities.
The Duchess of Malfi, Lyttelton Theatre and on tour, January to May 2003.
PRODUCTION TEAM Director: Phyllida Lloyd Designer: Mark Thompson Lighting Designer:
Mark Henderson Music: Gary Yershon Director of Movement: Michael Keegan-Dolan Fight
Director: Terry King Sound Designer: Simon Baker for Autograph CAST Doctor: Julien Ball
Pescara: Martin Chamberlain Bosola: Lorcan Cranitch Julia: Eleanor David Antonio Bologna:
Charles Edwards Fourth Officer: Keiran Flynn First Officer: James Howard Ferdinand, Duke of
Calabria: Will Keen Madwoman: Eliza Luymley Third Officer: Keith Macpherson Madwoman:
Penelope McGhie The Duchess of Malfi: Janet McTeer Cariola: Sally Rogers Delio: Jonathan
Slinger The Cardinal: Ray Stevenson Second Officer: Andrew Westfield.
Ben Spiller graduated from Warwick University with a BA in Theatre and Performance
Studies (2000) and an MA in Culture of the European Renaissance (2001). He is
currently working towards a PhD in English and Cultural Studies at Sheffield Hallam
University, the working title of which is ‘”Fellows of infinite jest”: Early Modern/(Post-)
Modern Fools in Performance’. Amongst other plays, he has directed Macbeth (Warwick
Arts Centre Studio, 1999), Pericles (Codpiece Theatre, 2000), and an open-air
production of the First Quarto of Hamlet (Warwick University, 2001). Ben also works
for Arts Council England and will be teaching a Shakespeare course at Oxford
University in the summer of 2003. E-mail: [email protected]