“I've always seen John Webster as a proto- feminist,” says Zinnie Harris about The Duchess [of Malfi], her new Version of Webster’s similarly named seventeenth century revenge tragedy. As Harris prepares to open her own production of the play at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh in co-production with the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, where it will visit its temporary home at Tramway in September as part of the Gorbals-based theatre’s Citizens Women season, this is probably fair point.
Webster’s original play, after all, pits a free-spirited widow against a patriarchy unable to deal with her autonomy as she marries beneath her class. As Harris makes clear, the play’s focus on male control is as pertinent today as it ever was.
“I think there is a conversation going on just now that's about how we treat women,” she says, “and this is a play that was out of its time. Webster was saying that you try to destroy women at your peril. It's a play that's about female empowerment, but it's also a play about how men react to that.
“In the seventeenth century there was this fear of widows, because they had a financial independence. If a woman was a maid men had influence over her, but if she was a widow they couldn't control her. The play gets to the heart of that, but whenever we talk about the empowerment of women, we're also talking about the behaviour of men. The play is called The Duchess, but it's still an ensemble piece, and you see the different choices the male characters make. Ultimately it's a big revenge tragedy, and there's that sense that your sins will come back to haunt you, and that no-one will escape.”
Aside from her original plays, which include Further From the Furthest Thing, The Wheel and Meet Me at Dawn, Harris has considerable form in reinventing contentious classics. As well as versions of Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, her epic take on the Oresteia trilogy of Greek tragedies ripped into Aeschylus’ original with a vigour which again put the plays’ women at their centre.
“I think with Oresteia, the first play was the most dramatically complete, while the others still needed a lot of work,” says Harris. “The Duchess is different. It's already a big, structurally sound play. What I wanted to do with that is to try and take it into a world with some of the things we're thinking about now.”
There are umbilical links between Harris’ take on Webster and the play’s relationship with the Citizens Theatre past and present. In 1986, Philip Prowse, one third of the Citz’s artistic triumvirate for more than thirty years alongside Giles Havergal and Robert David MacDonald, oversaw a production at the Royal National Theatre. This starred Eleanor Bron as the Duchess, leading a cast that also featured Ian McKellan and Edward Petherbridge.
More recently, in 2010, current associate director of English Touring Theatre, Elizabeth Freestone, helmed an updated version of the Duchess of Malfi at Greenwich Theatre, featuring Aislin McGuckin taking the title role. Freestone also directed Nora: A Doll’s House, Stef Smith’s recent reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s play for the Citizens Women season.
Harris’ look at The Duchess will see Kirsty Stuart take on the title role. Stuart too has form, having appeared in Oresteia: This Restless House and in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Gut, by Frances Poet. Poet has worked as dramaturg on The Duchess, while her own contribution to Citizens Women, Fibres, will open in October.
Harris’ relationship too with the Lyceum has been long established, with the Edinburgh theatre co-producing her version of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic, Rhinoceros. Harris also directed Caryl Churchill’s play, A Number, at the Lyceum.
“I think The Duchess fits in well with the rest of the Lyceum season,” Harris says. “After the lightness of Local Hero, I hope audiences are ready for something darker.”
The Duchess and the Citizens Women season arrive at a time when issues around gender and equal representation are perhaps more noticeable than in recent times. Given the quality of work by Harris, Smith and Poet at any level, it might be argued that the Citizens Women season is an unnecessary construction. The recent announcement of the National Theatre in London’s noticeably woman-free season, however, begs to differ.
“I think what is happening now in all communities is really interesting,” says Harris. “Even the way we produce a play or programme a season is different now in terms of seeing representation of women at all levels. What excites me is that it feels to me that every area of society is having to think about how they treat women, and over the last four or five years seeing more female representation in theatre has been important.”
In terms of The Duchess, Harris is similarly hopeful.
“I always want to give a way out,” she says, “so even though there is a stage full of blood, the play offers a way forward. There's no point in putting an audience through all this darkness without saying there's another way of doing things. We are able to be entirely horrific and entirely exquisite to each other at the same time, but how can we ensure we don't make the wrong choice. We have to ask ourselves why are we making those choices, and how do we ensure we make the right one?”
The Duchess [of Malfi], Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, May 17-June 8; Citizens Theatre at Tramway, Glasgow, September 4-21.
The Herald, May 11th 2019