Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Hellbent, Red Stitch Actors' Theatre, Nov 29, 2006

adapted by Ailsa Piper & Hugh Colman from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster
by Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre
Nov 29 to Dec 16, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster, is a revenge tragedy from the early Jacobean period after the death of Elizabeth 1. 

Hellbent is an assiduously edited version of the script rather than an adaptation. It is reduced from three hours to 100 minutes.

The editing reduces the cast of characters from fifteen or more to six. Several characters are folded into one. Lines of dialogue are reallocated and action is compressed into a shorter time frame. This has both positive and negative effects.

On the credit side, the story is more sharply focussed on the major players. On the debit, the narrative hastens too rapidly to its climaxes without our having developed clear understanding of the characters or issues at stake. The relationships cannot fully develop with such editing.

The play was a venomous indictment of the misuse of power and the excesses of the secular and religious leaders of the Renaissance period who were hell bent on power, violence, deceit or lust.

The beautiful, young and lusty Duchess (Kate Cole) is newly widowed. Her two very powerful brothers, the Duke Ferdinand (Dion Mills) and the Cardinal (Felix Nobis), are hell bent on stoping her remarrying. Secretly, the Duchess proposes, beds and marries her estate manager, Antonio (Nick Coghlan). Her lady’s maid, Julia (Verity Charlton) assists in the deception of the brothers.

The revenge and tragic repercussions are the result of the brothers’ actions and their enlistment of the soldier and murderer, Bosola (Simon Wood), as their spy and assassin.

The violence in Webster is typical of the revenge tragedies of the time but it can be too much for a modern audience to take seriously or tolerate. In some of the final scenes, particularly for Mills as the malevolent and crazed Duke, it tilts into melodrama.

Coghlan captures the steadfastness and honesty of Antonio. As the Duchess, Cole is best in her early skittish scenes before the onset of horror and grief. Nobis, as the Cardinal, has a stately, sinister dignity.

Wood goes some way toward making the murderer, Bosola, sympathetic as he fulfils his masters’ orders without the taste for blood.

There are compelling moments, particularly in the scenes after the Duchess’s demise where the story has time to unfold.

The play gallops along a little too fast and awkwardly in the first half but it is an interesting version of Webster’s classic.

By Kate Herbert

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