AS English Literature students recently had the opportunity to see a performance of John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy ‘The Duchess of Malfi’; student Nathan Meades reports….
Packed full of passion, lust, intrigue, violence and emotion, Nottingham Playhouse’s production of the Duchess of Malfi was quite something. Bonfire Night it may have been when AS English Literature students converged upon the theatre, but the fireworks outside were nothing compared to the theatrical sparks produced on stage. This piece of renaissance realpolitik, expertly and subtly portrayed by the cast at the Nottingham Playhouse, fizzed and crackled, surprised and stunned more adeptly than any rocket or Catherine Wheel, and the performance was thoroughly enjoyable for everyone who saw it.
The play, first performed at the Blackfriars Theatre in London in1614 and first published in 1623, is a classic revenge tragedy of the Jacobean tradition, penned by the playwright John Webster. In short, it is full of blood, sex and strong emotions, and these elements, alongside its themes of power, the status of women, class and corruption, were powerfully and emotively evoked in this production; the play losing none of its appeal or potency despite being over 400 years old. Indeed, the director, Fiona Buffini, commented that “the Jacobean world view and our world view is actually very similar”, and this was very clear when watching the play. Its valuable and intrinsic social messages on gender and class inequalities, alongside many other issues, were incredibly apt and resonant to an audience in 2015, given that our society is still riddled with prejudice and inequality, and it certainly left me, alongside many others in the audience, I am sure, with much to think about.
The narrative of the play was just as engaging as its profound themes and moral instructions. It’s an excellent story, no question about it. It centres on the young and newly widowed Duchess of Malfi (played by Beatriz Romilly) and her search for love and happiness in the rigidly hierarchical society of 16th century Italy. As I’m sure you can imagine, it doesn’t end well, and Baron Acton’s famous maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” has never been more applicable than to this text.
Sitting three rows from the front at 2:00 on a Thursday afternoon, yours truly was pleasantly surprised to find himself transported to a whole new place. And I know it sounds clichéd, but I’m not just saying it – the dark and Machiavellian machinations of Renaissance Italy really did surround and envelop me, and for the several hours of the play’s duration, my eyes were riveted on the stage.
People are all too quick to judge the theatre, in my experience. It’s boring. Not entertaining. Full of old people, they say. But this production disproved all of these preconceptions. It didn’t matter who you were, what you were wearing or how much you knew about the play – everyone there was able to appreciate it as a good story, expressively and emotively performed by a cast of very fine actors. That’s all that matters. I, alongside the rest of the English Lit students, was heartily impressed and entertained, and certainly look forward with anticipation to analysing this epic tragedy in minute and painful amounts of detail in A2.