Monthly Archives: October 2014

Adapting and Distilling the Duchess of Malfi


Condensing Malfi to a tighter text for 8 actors whilst at the same time maintaining what I believe is the thrust and shape of the play has been an interesting challenge. For me one of the most important factors is to maintain the atmosphere and dark philosophical Vision of a critical elitist world which crumbles and sinks into the mire of its own madness and violence, taking almost everyone with it.

It is delicate work . I have already returned some text I had sliced away.

I have done a lot of adaptations over the years, since I worked on Celestina, De Rojas extraordinary play/novel for the Actors Touring Company, and adaptations for Commonweal of Faustus and The Old Law, A Jacobean play by Middleton and Rowley. The latter involved me in writing a version of the play , with my own scenes and speeches, developing the female characters in particular. This incensed some of the national right wing critics who were annoyed I gave the play a definite left wing bias, that was only hinted at in the original, though the adaptation got many fine reviews, as did the production.

What was exciting was that because I wrote in the style of the original play, my own contributions were not discernible except to the few scholars who were familiar with the play. In 2008 the original play was performed in Stratford-on-Avon. Unfortunately despite some strong performances it remained for me a museum piece, and I think they would have been well served to have done an adaptation. My own, whilst overlong, was far more relevant to the world right now and far more likely to engage audiences. In fact when I did my version with students at MIT many years later I cut it drastically. It is an interesting play, essentially a black comedy about euthanasia and the effects of legislation on society.

Michael Chekhov, when discussing Shakespeare, thought a director and cast should feel free to shape and edit his plays, and at one time I would have thought this an anathema. But as I have come to understand Chekhov’s rules about composition ,( which are shared by other techniques too) and understood that the plays were frequently co-authored, which made for repetition and occasional lack of clarity, along with the fact that there are often pieces which are incomprehensible to a modern audience, I have become much more free about the subject. Also, the obvious practical issues about performing these large plays with a more modest cast  inevitably make editing essential. Chekhov’s idea of form and his suggestion to treat the play almost as if it was a music score is an exciting consideration, and can hone not only the direction but also the whole creative team contribution.

However, there are dangers when distilling the work, of the whole play evaporating. In his short but wonderful book, Evoking Shakespeare, Peter Brook discusses the dangers of modernising a text or setting it in a different time, reminding us that whilst, as directors, we can do what we want, that we are losing something, or at the very least, changing something fundamental, whenever we make these kinds of changes.

So what are the essences of the Duchess of Malfi? A corrupt fetishistic class ridden world, which devours itself , yet is nonetheless desired and admired by the people who work for it, until they realise all too late that when you are sucked into that world, you yourself are inevitably tainted. In this world, that means usually you pay with your life.

Here is a change I have made. For me the issue of class is strong in the play though never fully explored,, and I have accentuated this a little through the character of what was once Delio, Antonios friend. He is a courtier in the original and his rather rakish behaviour In certain scenes sits uncomfortably for me with his main role of confidante to Antonio, The accountant and personal assistant to the Duchess, who eventually becomes her husband. Of course a purist might say that this is what Webster was trying to say, that even the nicest people are corrupted, but his contribution is not coherent enough to really make sense to me.  In the original he seems as corrupt as the others, and I was anxious to seek an energy in the play of someone who was a good person but who was not  tainted by the actions of the court. It is interesting Delio begins and ends the play, and that must be our abiding impression of him as a good guy, the Horatio of Malfi.

In our production the character Delia is being played by an older woman , and I sense she might come from a lower class even than Antonio. This allows us to connect with a Character, an outsider, who has to deal with the horror of what transpires, someone whose fascination for the court is obvious right from the start, in the lines she/he is given. It gives Delia a strong pertinent resonance for the present Day to which we can all relate as we look on at ineffectual and corrupt government elites across the globe. Whilst this is not in the original , we are not not living in the 17th century either, and ultimatately the play has to communicate to us now. Having said all this I have been very careful not to increase the stage time of the character, which would have unbalanced the play . It is all a delicate balance.

The Duchess of Malfi plays in the Black Box Galway February 3rd – 7th