Max Hafler’s “The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster circa 1580 – 1634



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This is an extraordinary production and probably the only performance we will see in Ireland for a long time. I went to the preview last night which was also students’ night: a rather dull audience I felt and only a small number of them staying for the after show talk with the Company chaired by the Head of English at their University. The “after the show” students were more generous when the cast took their seats for the chat.

It was said that the play was about misogyny, which it undoubtedly deals with, but I felt this rather reductive of its wider issues. It is a popular way of approaching literary criticism at present that often reduces a work of art to serve the psychological dilemmas of heterosexual men and the difficult to read theses of some feminist academics. My sexual politics belong more to the streets and the agent provocateur oppression of the police in the sixties that threatened homosexual men with prison sentences and the ruin of their careers. Nevertheless, it is an interesting perspective if it does not obscure the bigger political picture I believe the play represents. It begins with a speech about the reforms in the French Court and about the behaviour of Princes in ruling their people; a big issue in the England of James the First, as it is in present day Ireland, Spain, Greece etc. etc. It certainly deals with political corruption and the way power, political or sexual, can/does corrupt absolutely.

The play is heavily adapted, alas this was not really discussed, and this latter day collaboration of Webster and Hafler (a not uncommon practice in Webster’s time) is one of the productions supreme achievements. More than once it was said last night how clear, how accessible, this production was in spite of the, at times difficult, 17th. Century language. More than this, I felt this honing down gave focus and intensity to the actors’ task and to the emotions they were able to chill us with; I say “chill” very deliberately, for chilling the production certainly was at times.

I loved the idea that these were all actors from the West of Ireland or as far as I know residing here and many had studied at the University here or had done intensive performance work with the director in workshops or as his students at the university. Many had been in the director’s previous productions in Galway and the sense of collaborative harmony, superb ensemble playing (commented on during the chat) was evidence of this close relationship. I almost felt Peter Brook himself would have been proud of this, if not envied it. This idea, this concept, of the close knit company working as an ensemble with a trusted director can create great theatre if given the chance and opportunity of funding and recognition. The alternative of hiring the famous, the compliant, often the conservatively schooled (and in the received pronunciation) with a director who has never acted and whom no one really likes or respects, but dare not say so, has produced much of the dull and lifeless theatre the UK is so proud of. Lets do it differently here I want to say!

The production has some superb performances and you must judge for yourself which you most admire. I will not single people out like reviewers do; this is a cooperative ensemble that achieves much to be admired. The play is not without humour in that strange tragicomic style of the Jacobean theatre but it ends, in Hafler’s adaptation, almost without hope and this is challenging to an audience so lost, so without hope already, in the austerity of corrupt global capitalism and a struggling Europe not to mention (as one rarely does) this time of planetary crisis.

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