The Duchess (of Malfi) @ Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Image Contribution:
Mihaela Bodlovic

Original writer: John Webster

Writer & Director Zinnie Harris

Unyielding cruelty is at the rotten heart of what is perhaps the most notorious tragedy of English Renaissance drama, The Duchess (of Malfi).Widowed, yet defiant to remarry despite her brothers’ judgements, the Duchess takes on a husband. At first John Webster’s tragedy is a (twisted) love story. Devolving into vicious revenge sees Zinnie Harris’ writing drag the narrative up to change the progression of characters. Heightening misogyny and showcasing past redeemers as crimson coated cowards.

In depictions of violence, particularly sexual, an incomprehensibly narrow line is tread. To offer dignity to the subject matter, avoiding trivialisation. It is by no stretch simple, quite often causing productions to falter in their attempts. Where the entire team of The Duchess (of Malfi) thoroughly succeed is delivering brutality which engages an audience, but doesn’t turn away the masses. This said, the sadists out there may find there was another notch they could have dialled up.

A production bathing in vice, it’s opening Act is guilty of one sin in particular – Sloth, perhaps theatre’s most deadly. While Wrath, Envy and Lust may sit atop the thrones of thematic, the first half of The Duchess (of Malfi) suffers from bloated pacing. In a rare plea, it is worth the build-up. Its world building is a masterpiece which requires patience, this virtue is rewarded. What may this reward be? Theatre with gloves off.

Perhaps it’s bloodlust, but while Harris’ production embraces streaks of scarlet, we’re still hungering for exuding depravity. If boundaries are to be pushed – push until they shatter.

Kirsty Stuart, the Duchess herself refuses to break or at least outlasts her male companions. Her performance takes off in the latter half, something noticeable for the majority of the production. The Duchess will have none of her brothers judgements nor advances, Stuart holds herself steadfast upon the stage to echo the character beautifully.

She feels human, crafted exquisitely for the Citizen’s Women season. Stuart doesn’t conduct the Duchess as a powerhouse of hollow writing, she isn’t a strong character for the sake of female leads; she’s fallible, emotional and follows her heart where her head cries no. With the tortuous depictions in the second act, Stuart’s conveyance of defiance, but acceptance of pain and eventual cracking is hallowing.

Maintaining the poetic language of Webster, Harris harnesses the text whilst infusing it with Scots tone, which has the added benefit of bringing heightened comedic aspects in its required scenes – curdling blood when it’s aggression is called upon. Jamie Macdonald’s video projections add a Tarantino styled introduction, helping to break up the first act.

Rejuvenating the text comes with change, and while the core elements of misogynistic crassness remain – Harris’ text has incorporated a far more appealing angle, the frank insipidness of proud men. Angus Miller’s incestuous Ferdinand, driven to insanity by his own lust for, well everything, is a delightful crumble from ‘power’.

What Harris does beautifully is robbing these men of their final ‘heroic’ actions from the original text. They are no longer seekers of revenge or fighters, but husks of their formers selves crawling amidst the rot and blood; cowards. This is what we need, what we wanted and a damning improvement on adapted scripts.

The Duchess (of Malfi) is rife with vim and vigour, drenching itself in the flesh of the text while Harris offers her own aspects. To describe the first act as a slow-burning is incorrect, it’s a pile of embers. Embers which smoulder, fearful they may die out. What erupts from these is an inferno of cruelty, pain but gut-wrenching emotion. A triumph for Citizen’s Theatre and Royal Lyceum.

Review originally published for Reviewshub:

Tickets available from Royal Lyceum Theatre:

Local Hero @ Royal Lyceum Theatre

Stephen Cummiskey

Book: Bill Forsyth and David Greig

Music & Lyrics: Mark Knopfler

Director: John Crowley

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Nominated for several BAFTA’s, receiving critical praise and adoration, the 1983 film Local Hero is a slice of timeless filmmaking. Bill Forsyth’s much-loved film still retains its charm decades later. So, when it was revealed that a stage adaptation was on the cards, and a musical adaptation no less, many a theatre-going Scot knew this may well be their highlight of the Lyceum’s 2019 repertoire.

Relevant now as ever, Local Hero is a low-key story in which American oil representative Mac (Damian Humbley) stumbles into the glare of one thing he cannot overcome – Scottish canniness. Situated on an oil pipeline, it is up to Mac to win over the residents of the rural town whilst not losing himself in the wild splendour of the Highlands.

The green pastures of England, those misty mountains of the Welsh coast – Romanticism can be a wayward concept. Perhaps nowhere more so than Scotland. At its heart, it reconnects us to nationality, community, albeit through the most tinted of nostalgia goggles. The charm throughout Local Hero is echoed in its mysticism and characters, but nowhere quite so as Luke hall’s prepossessing projection design.

Forsyth has carefully balanced the romantic pedestalling of Scotland, though it does wobble in the breeze. Some characters stray into caricatures, though they are levelled out by others. None more so than Ben, ‘wizard’ of the beach. Julian Forsyth is the example of when Local Hero excels. Subtle, jovial and whilst a slight stretch of exaggeration has rings of familiarity.

Humour is an integral part of Forsyth and Grieg’s writing, a pivotal tool for the story. Without it, the realism of the production falls apart, it’s place is just on the cusp of absurdist. Paradoxically, this absurdism works to reinforce the realism.

You can find yourself becoming lost in this production. It carries that quaintness in the model village overlooking the characters. Musical numbers aside, there are no quarrels with the quieter moments, quite often opting for silence as opposed to ramble. Bombarding this silence though is Lucy Hind’s choreography that demands that you get your feet tapping if the music hasn’t got it going already.

Quite often with productions such as Local Hero, we ask ourselves; ‘why a musical?’. It’s a bold move, especially given the original films tight pacing. It works, most of the time. Where Mark Knopfler’s numbers work are the seamless transitions. As a musical, it heightens the whimsical factor, though filler numbers do render some moments stilting. By the time we hit Matthew Pidgeon and Katrina Bryan’s show-stealer Filthy, Dirty, Rich we’re accustomed to the musicality. Maintaining just enough of Knopfler’s film soundtrack feel, though accentuated for the stage vocally, the entire cast is on point, Wendy Somerville’s haunting solo the most accomplished.

Correlations and comparisons with the original source are unfair but unavoidable, especially given the same creators involvement. Taking this musical as a completely separate entity though, it’s rather marvellous. It isn’t without its faults, on levels of personal taste the romanticism can feel overreaching and quite often song choices are unnecessary. It has an environmental message, is poignant ecologically and the growing standpoint of Scottish Independence is present but is at times eclipsed.

This production means a tremendous deal to a great many. It’s crafted with respect for fans of Forsyth’s original, but for new viewers too. It’s a production for the people. As one of Scotland’s most beloved stories of previous decades, everything has been done to conjure up the resilience, humour and valour Scotland utilises in it’s past, present and future.

Review originally published for Reviewshub: