After our first exploratory week involving finding atmopsheres, qualities and centres for this extraordinary play, we began this week to apply some of those discoveries to the text.
The last two days we have been working on one of the most horrific acts in Theatre , act 4 of the Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, which we are presenting in the Black Box Theatre Galway with an eight strong cast in early February. For those unfamiliar with the play, this act involves the capture and psychological torture of a woman whose only crime is to marry against the wishes of her brothers. With only her waiting woman and her two babies for company, her deranged brother locks her away, then in a bizarre charade pretends he has killed her husband and presents her with a dead hand which she presumes is his. The brother then sends her inmates from an asylum to attend on her. They taunt and molest her, and then finally there is a disturbing charade at the end of which she , her waiting woman and her two babies are murdered.
After working on this act on Thursday, we actually discussed the possibility of having ten minutes relaxation/ debriefing or whatever after we rehearsed this scene, the intensity of it was so profoundly horrible. To those not familiar with theatre and the depth of the work, most particularly when rehearsing and working with different qualities and atmospheres, often doing sections of a gruesome scene over and over,this can sound a bit precious, but it actually isn’t . When working with the body and imagination, powerful feelings flow through you. Even though it flows through , it can also leave a residue and this needs to be considered. Act 4 has the atmosphere of a torture chamber.
When I watched this scene for the first time today, I realised something. The brother and his lieutenant who have facilitated this torture and murder sit empty and exhausted near her murdered body and start to argue and blame each other for her death. By the end of the scene , I realised that both men were completely destroyed by their actions; how Webster understands that violence destroys the perpetrators as surely as it does the victims.
It made me think about the violence in France this week.
Someone said to me how much they loved the play because of the bloodbath ; so often the play is dismissed as some kind of Jacobean soap opera. However, for me this is a deeply political and moral play about decay, corruption and what can happen to those who refuse to bow to it. The gruesome poetry is magnificent. The cynical realisations of the characters are not so far from our own, and given the society in which we live the so-called excesses of the play are not at all far fetched. It is grotesquely funny in places, juxtaposing the deep downward feeling of tragedy and pain with a kind of wriggling upward struggle for energy and life, as if they are all trying to escape from a trap. One image in the poster of a decaying rose reminds me of how things die, pass and change, and against that backdrop how we endeavour to take our breath .