Thursday, May 31, 2012

Honour Killing: The Duchess of Malfi at The Old Vic

This excellent production at The Old Vic has an imposing cathedral-like set that almost constitutes an extra character - one that is incredibily dark and menacing. It's as if all the forces of oppression are looming over the sole female of rank, a dignified and virtuous figure as portrayed  by Eve Best .

The powerful poetic text, and strong lead performances make for a very striking version of this often performed  but repellant play.

Like many Jacobean revenge tragedies, the story's set in Italy - a place of hot passion ( the sex scenes are explicit) and short tempers. Webster, according to TS Eliot, saw 'the skull beneath the skin' - in other words he was obsessed with death, usually of a particularly violent kind.

At the start, the  young Duchess of Malfi, widowed and childless, is warned by  her two brothers not to remarry without their permission. Their motives are not entirely clear, but 'honour' is a word that's frequently bandied about.

Unknown to them, she has already fallen for her handsome secretary; despite the disparity of rank, he responds and  they secretly  marry. However, her brothers have employed a spy, disguised as a groom, to report any suspicious behaviour. Her preganancy is disguised by 'a loose-bodied gown', but she's very partial to the apricots proffered by her tormentor, which he takes as proof that she's expecting. When the truth comes to light, the  younger brother Ferdinand plans a drawn-out and terrible revenge. The other one, a carnally-inclined Cardinal, has enough on his plate just trying to control his feisty mistress.

 One of the problems with this play has been to settle on the motivation.  It may be the brothers dread  a loss of social status or fear her fortune will fall into other hands; perhaps loyalty to the memory of the first husband influences them.  Most directors ascribe incestuous feelings to Ferdinand to account for the extremities of his behaviour.

It occurred to me, reading  recent newspaper reports of 'honour' killings, that a search for further motives is unnecessary. Critics claim that Webster's representations of cruelty and corruption were just reflections, as he saw it, of the society he lived in. While the notion of 'honour killing' might have seemed a historical relic,  in the light of recent cases it's easier to credit.The explanation for the cruelty is not particular to the case of the Duchess and her brothers but  a general reflection of what can occur when women resist control of their sexuality. 


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