The Duchess (of Malfi)

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper

Five stars

“Men will come with open faces and say anything to get inside your knickers,” says a jealous Ferdinand to the lady in red who just found her voice at the microphone in Zinnie Harris’ reimagining of John Webster’s seventeenth century revenge tragedy. The fact that the woman is the angry little man’s sister gives his own voice an edge that lays bare a desperate attempt to stamp out her autonomy alongside a terror of the lust for life she’s embraced.

All of Webster’s original plot is pretty much present and correct here, with Kirsty Stuart’s Duchess caught up in a man’s world, where, beyond her damaged siblings, her new beau Antonio has imposter syndrome, while Adam Best’s killer Bosola has serious guilt issues.

Harris’ own production for the Lyceum and Citizens theatres gives the play’s tale of a liberated woman being brutalised out of existence an extra contemporary kick. This is done in part through a use of language which undercuts its classicist steel with the phlegmatically modern rage of Ferdinand and the Duchess’ other brother, George Costigan’s abusive Cardinal.

It is done too on Tom Piper’s off-white minimalist set with devastating little moments, like when Leah Walker’s abused Julia teams up with Duchess and her maid Cariola, played by Fletcher Mathers, to form a 1960s style girl group. Oguz Kaplangi’s electric guitar score is played live by Eleanor Kane, before deathly chorales are choreographed by Kally Lloyd-Jones.

The torture scenes are as slickly stylised as a Netflix cartoon superhero show, with Jamie Macdonald’s video projections resembling a cut-up newsreel. Things take a lurch into the fantastical mid-way through the second half when the dead refuse to lie down, haunting the men who slaughtered them and watching as they destroy each other. All this is lent gravitas by an assured and stately pace as the power is claimed back in a bloody and brilliant piece of work.