The Duchess of Malfi | Bell ShakespeareLeft – Lucy Bell. Cover – Lucy Bell and Lucia Mastrantone

Bell Shakespeare's The Duchess Of Malfi
is an absolute tour de force. John Bell and his team have taken Webster's Renaissance text and exposed the raw, visceral, tragedy at its core. It is totally, utterly electrifying.

A word of admission: The Duchess of Malfi is one of my favourite plays in the world. I first encountered it as an undergraduate and wrote about it extensively in my Honours thesis. I don't think favouritism is an advantage here. I know how good this play is. My expectations were high. I did not think they could possibly be met. This production more than fulfilled them.

When it comes to Renaissance theatre, tragedy is often the source of the greatest transgression. Those who contravene societal norms must be punished – they must die – but for the tragedy to be effective, we must sympathise with them first. We must weep when they die. This is something Bell's show understands absolutely. Considering the fact that the play hinges on their relationship, the Duchess (Lucy Bell) and Antonio (Matthew Moore) have surprisingly few scenes together – but in this production, every moment they spent together mattered. It's important to understand just why the Duchess is willing to disobey the restrictions placed upon her – she's not just breaking rules for the sake of breaking rules, she does it because she is desperately unsatisfied and determined that, for once, she will have what she wants, she will do what she pleases. The Duchess and Antonio's relationship was beautiful and utterly believable; their separation heartbreaking.

Bell's production demonstrated a deep understanding of the gender politics at play in the show and exploited them to great tragic effect. The Duchess's crime is to defy the patriarchal authority placed over her – her brothers the Judge (Sean O'Shea) and the Cardinal (David Whitney) – so that she can marry the man she loves. Already effectively a bird in a gilded cage, her brothers punish her for her crime by confining her further, locking her up and trying to drive her mad by surrounding her with the screams of escaped lunatics and by convincing her that Antonio is dead. (Both these incidents are done brilliantly in the production: they were literally breathtaking. I felt them like a punch to the stomach.) And yet the Duchess emerges, rational at the last, an inversion of the Elizabethan understanding (which still has echoes in today's society) of the woman as emotional and the man as bastion of reason. This is particularly notable when one contrasts the Duchess with her twin brother the Judge, driven so mad by his incestuous desire to both kiss and kill his sister he begins to think that he is a wolf. Lucy Bell's agonising sanity in the face of death was a simply incredible moment of theatre.

All six actors deliver great performances, but special mention must go to Bell, to Sean O'Shea as her childish, sister-desiring and ultimately mad twin, and Ben Wood, who played Bosola, the lynchpin on which the tragedy turns. Wood was not the Bosola I had always imagined, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. By cutting the play down from its original seventeen characters to six, John Bell exposed the bones of the story, and Bosola was one character to really benefit from it. His complex and multi-layered struggles were foregrounded and the decision to have him survive (in the original, he and the Judge stab each other to death) made his own personal tragedy even more pronounced. Wood played Bosola as a blunt instrument and that is apt – Bosola's only real skill is killing, and his tragedy that he does not learn to wield his own power until it is too late.

The only flaw I can pick with this show is that the final bloodbath was not, well, bloodbath-y enough: the climax felt a little hollow. It was perhaps a little too stylised – I can understand not wanting to bathe the stage in blood like a slasher movie, but given the visceral impact of some of the earlier violent incidents, I think a little might have gone a long way. Still, this production of The Duchess of Malfi is jaw-droppingly powerful. It does absolute justice to Webster's text and is a must-see.

Bell Shakespeare presents
The Duchess Of Malfi
by John Webster | adapted by Hugh Colman and Ailsa Piper

Directed by John Bell

Venue: Sydney Opera House
Dates: 6 July – 5 August, 2012

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