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The Duchess (of Malfi)
“YOUR office is full of corpses,” observes a character stepping into the blood-drenched final scene of Zinnie Harris’s adaptation of John Webster’s Jacobean shocker.
All resemblance to Conservative Party HQ is purely intentional and one of the many ways in which this violent, plain-speaking play has been polished up to reflect present-day Britain.
The office is run by an amoral sexist patriarch who abuses anyone, including his own family, to maintain his grip on wealth and power.
“What else is our family but money?” he asks. It could be the Johnsons or the Windsors but, one wonders, do our own ruling elites possess this degree of cynical candour?
Glasgow Citzens has a reputation for retooling the classics and this co-production with Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh is a masterpiece.
The 17th-century class prejudice resonates in 21st-century political culture today — when the Cardinal regards the man he will hire as a spy and murderer, he acknowledges their class difference: “We are a different species,” he says.
But this is Webster, not Shakespeare, and his genius is to tell this tale from below as two brothers try to control their sister, the Duchess, and block her marriage and her independence with fatal consequences.
We experience the power play not through the manipulative aristocrats but through the conscience of the lower-class character hired to murder them.
The first half is like a fast-moving soap opera and it feels as though Joe Orton and Bertholt Brecht had got together to demonstrate how rotten the ruling class is.
It’s riddled with incest, entitlement and madness but even that doesn’t prepare you for a second half that’s a psychological horror show and a bloodbath.
One by one the characters are tortured and murdered in a concatenation of stranglings, shootings and suicides.
The class struggle agit-prop warps into something scripted by Sarah Kane and suddenly blood leaks excessively from every corpse.
But Harris saves her last twist for the end. She reinvents Webster’s message and allows the revenger a glimpse of redemption.
She gives him responsibility for a child, the only other person left alive. The ghost of the Duchess shows the blood-stained thug how to hand a glass of milk to the boy.
“Look after the future,” she says. “Change it.”
Runs until September 23, box office: citz.co.uk.
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