Lydia Wilson as the Duchess at the Almeida Theatre
Photograph by Nadav Kander
017 – The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster
John Webster’s 400-year old revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, has always had a reputation as a potboiler of a play. Although set in Italy, it depicts a world of courtly ambition, love and intrigue fuelled by the existential battle between the Devil and God, that audiences in England at the time of James 1 would certainly have recognised. It is a play notorious for its bloody plot, but it has also endured because of the poetry of its language and the indomitable character of its protagonist. There have been two recent revivals in London, one a dark and daringly modern production at the Almeida theatre this past year directed by Rebecca Fracknell, with Lydia Wilson in the title role, and a more traditional rendition in 2014 with Gemma Arterton as the Duchess, when the play was the first to open the Sam Wanamaker theatre, the Globe’s evocative indoor space. Both of these two productions affirmed that the Duchess remains a powerful female paradigm in our patriarchal world.
I’m delighted to be joined in this episode by an expert on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Professor Emma Smith. Emma teaches Shakespeare at Hertford College, Oxford, and has written widely on Shakespeare and early modern drama. Her introduction to John Webster appeared in the program for the Almeida production of play, and she has published a fuller introduction to the play in the anthology Women on the Early Modern Stage.
Professor Emma Smith
Professor Emma Smith teaches Shakespeare at Hertford College, Oxford and has written widely on early modern drama, including The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare and The Cambridge Guide to Shakespeare, as well as editing a collection of Five Revenge Tragedies. Her most recent book This Is Shakespeare published by Penguin last year, was a Sunday Times bestseller. Her lectures on Shakespeare and his contemporaries are also available as podcasts from ox.ac.uk or on Apple podcasts.
Emma also often works with theatre companies, and her introduction to John Webster appeared in the program for Almeida production of The Duchess of Malfi. A fuller introduction to the play is published in the anthology Women on the Early Modern Stage, a New Mermaids publication from 2014.
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The Footnotes to our episode on The Duchess of Malfi include John Webster and the business of funerals, visions of the afterlife in the play, and our favourite metaphors in Webster’s metaphysical verse.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
Garry Essendine is a star of the London stage with an ego and celebrity lifestyle to match. But as he passes forty his excesses threaten to bring down the entire structure of his professional and personal life. Essendine is the thinly disguised alter-ego of playwright and performer Noel Coward, whose tussle with his own fame is the subject of his classic 3-act, 4-door farce Present Laughter. First performed in 1942 with Coward himself as the lead, the play has since attracted a glittering list of stars who could not resist the flamboyant turn, including most recently Andrew Scott in an Olivier award-winning performance at the Old Vic in 2019. Joining me to reexamine Coward’s ‘light comedy’ in the 21st century is theatrical agent and Coward aficionado, Alan Brodie.
One Podcast Two Plays! Carlo Goldoni’s Commedia dell’Arte classic A Servant to Two Masters and Richard Bean’s hilarious update One Man Two Guvnors. We explore all of the ingredients of the original play in the tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, as well as how Bean translated these so successfully into his smash hit at the National Theatre. Writer and director Justin Greene joins me to sample this multi-course theatrical banquet. (Commedia afficionados will appreciate the gourmet references!).
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …