Zinnie Harris

The Duchess (of Malfi)

21/05/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As we take our seats in the Lyceum, we’re aware of an almost palpable air of expectation. After all, this is John Webster’s most infamous play and it’s a dead certainty that, by curtain down, the pale grey set is going to be liberally splattered with Kensington Gore. I’m expecting a wild ride, and I’m glad to note that, in this adaptation by Zinnie Harris, the feel is definitely sprightly – and I’m grateful for the huge illuminated titles, that introduce all the main characters as they enter, making it very easy to keep track of the ensuing mayhem.

When we first meet The Duchess (Kirsty Stuart), she is attempting to sing, her voice faltering at first but rapidly growing in confidence, until she is rudely interrupted by the arrival of her manipulative brothers, Ferdinand (Angus Miller) and The Cardinal (George Costigan). We quickly learn that The Duchess is a young widow, newly liberated from a loveless marriage. She is young, she has money and she’s ready to express herself in a male-dominated world. Her brothers, on the other hand, want her to make a suitable marriage, to somebody rich and respectable, in order to enhance her (and their) status. However, she is in love with her humble young secretary, Antonio (Graham McKay-Bruce), and – all too aware that her brothers will not approve of the union – she marries him in secret, aided by her maid, Cariola (Fletcher Mather). All is well and good until The Duchess falls pregnant with twins; when her brothers learn of the deception via their carefully planted spy, Bosola (Adam Best), their desire for revenge has no limits…

This is beautifully staged and cleverly directed. Stuart is a delight in the title role and I particularly relish George Costigan as the oleaginous Cardinal, outwardly devout and sanctimonious, yet happy to quote the scriptures even when performing the most depraved of acts on his unfortunate mistress, Julia (Leah Walker). The play’s first half positively scampers along, and – dutifully reinforced with a glass of something alcoholic – we return for act two, where carnage promptly ensues.

I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say it works in spite of the hokey material – and largely by virtue of the fact that the bloodshed is played as the darkest of comedies, the rapidly rising body count coaxing laughter from the audience rather than silent dread. This is, I think, the only way to play it in these unshockable times, a sort of Comedy of Terrors. It’s left to hired hand Bosola to salvage something from the chaos he has engineered on behalf of his wicked employers, and it’s his redemption that lies at the very heart of this rollicking revenge tragedy.

It’s all here. Romance, comedy and lashings of Type O. How can you resist?

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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Gut

28/04/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Frances Poet’s lean and powerful psychological drama was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize for playwriting in 2015, and it’s easy to see what appealed to the judges. This tense  and affecting four-hander examines the entirely natural fears that can lurk in the minds of any parent – the worry that something bad might happen to their children – and it demonstrates how such fears, allowed to fester, can grow out of all proportion.

After a night away, young couple, Maddy (Kirsty Stewart) and Rory (Peter Collins), return home, where Peter’s mother, Morvern (Lorraine McIntosh), is babysitting their three year old son, Josh. Morvern tells them about an incident the previous day, when she took Josh to a cafe for his lunch. Josh needed to go to the toilet and, when a male customer offered to take him, Morvern was grateful for his help. Nothing sinister appears to have happened, but Maddy and Rory are understandably perturbed. The man was a complete stranger – how could Morvern have been so trusting? Terse words are exchanged and apologies made.

Rory soon gets over the situation but, for Maddy, the event has a much deeper resonance,  driving a wedge between her and Morvern and firing up a powerful distrust of any men she subsequently comes into contact with: the father of one of Josh’s schoolmates; Rory’s colleague from work; a man who comes to the door delivering leaflets  – all played by a wonderfully sinister George Anton. As her paranoia intensifies, it soon becomes apparent that Maddy’s fears are leading her and her son to a very dark place indeed…

Simply and effectively staged, with strong naturalistic performances from all the actors and adept direction by Zinnie Harris, Gut exerts a powerful grip on the audience’s emotions. The almost bare set thrusts the play’s themes into stark focus, with the occasional scattering of large boxes of brightly coloured children’s toys across the stage, hinting at the increasing disintegration of the family unit. An eerily lit doorway at the rear of the stage occasionally allows distorted shadows to be glimpsed through an opaque screen and a sombre musical score adds to an all-pervading sense of unease. It’s demanding stuff, but an unexpected reveal in the play’s closing moments offers some respite and actually brings audible gasps of relief from the audience.

This is a challenging and intriguing piece of theatre that keeps me hooked to the very end. The Traverse has a reputation for bringing exciting new work to public attention and Gut deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney