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.
The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.
The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.
Footnotes Volume 2 is a selection of facts and observations culled from the library of information that we’ve compiled to accompany each of the plays in the past ten episodes. These include fascinating bits of trivia as well as more extended exploration of specific aspects of the plays. A smorgasbord of dramatic intelligence befitting of the best kind of Footnote.
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 …