The Duchess of Malfi at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Zinnie Harris’s new version of the Jacobean revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi, makes Quentin Tarantino’s films look like Mary Poppins.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much blood on stage. The violence is gut-wrenching, not just in the physical sense but in what comes out of people’s mouths (and other orifices). I was transfixed.

John Webster’s original play, published in 1623 and based on actual facts (poor Duchess!), is said by some to be one of the greatest tragedies of Renaissance drama because of playwright John Webster’s poetic language and his complex characters.

The characters are certainly complex (a dysfunctional family to beat all dysfunctional families, with a young widow trying to make a new life despite her brothers; one stark staring mad and the other a lecherous Cardinal) but I wouldn’t describe Harris’s dialogue as poetic. It’s bang up-to-date and in-yer-face. She pulls no punches, both in her writing and direction. Sexual references, especially coming from a Cardinal, no less, would make a prostitute blush (not that people were pure in the 1600s!) and there’s much use of one particular word which, though said to have originated in Elizabethan times, is greatly used (unfortunately) today.

I’m not complaining. The production is riveting, both audibly and visually, and the acting is such that, at times, like when one more corpse joins the heap, I really felt someone was being killed for real.

A metal walkway and a stark white backdrop (contrasting with all that red gore) is mostly all there is to set the scene, and yet we are completely sucked into the world of the Duchess and her siblings. When her husband dies the young woman wants a new life but her brothers try to control her for power and incestuous leanings – and these lead to the most grisly and gory scenes I’ve ever seen on stage.

As the brothers, Angus Miller gives a thrilling performance as Ferdinand while George Costigan as the Cardinal is still making my skin crawl. They are the detritus of society, and so recognisable in today’s world.

Kirsty Stuart, in the title role, also turns in a spellbinding performance, running the gamut of emotions, from playful and provocative as she flirts with her steward and future (secret) husband, to a tragic, tortured soul forced to look at film of the shooting of her husband and son. And as the ghost who comes back to haunt her brothers she adds another, ethereal dimension.

There are many layers to the others main characters and each actor rises to the challenge: Fletcher Mathers as the Maid, Graham Mackay-Brown as the Duchess’s secret husband and Adam Best as the malevolent Bosola.

Together with stark and, at times, alarming contributions from Ben Ormerod (lighting), Michael John McCarthy (sound), Jamie MacDonald (video), this is a real treat for fans of the horror genre, and definitely not for the feint-hearted.

The Duchess of Malfi is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh until June 8.
Box Office: 0131 248 4848
lyceum.org.uk
Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic