The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is, in my opinion, a particularly feminist piece of early modern drama. When I decided to put this play forward to Sheffield University Theatre Company (SuTCo), I knew that the representations of female strength in the play were something I really wanted to highlight. Webster gives us a heroine who makes a modern audience realise just how powerful a lot of women in history were. You might not always read about them in books, but they were there- fighting tirelessly for the right to control their own lives. Webster’s eponymous Duchess might not survive the play, but her dignity and strength stays with the audience long after it has ended. She stands firm in her convictions, exuding grace and poise in the face of unjust cruelty.
People who know the play may observe that there are only a handful of female roles, which is why I chose to make some alterations to the cast, in keeping with the artistic direction I want to take. Two of the ‘henchmen’ have been gender swapped to women. I wanted an opportunity to explore what happens when women abuse positions of power, making an audience question subconscious ideas they may have about gender by presenting two characters who undermine traditional notions of passive femininity. This was one of the reasons I felt the play would work better if it was set in 1950s Italy, centering on a Mob family instead of the usual monarchy. It creates a space where women can be simultaneously powerful and oppressed; things might have progressed from Webster’s time, but there is still a battle for equality. An atmosphere driven by money, power and violence also echoes the original setting while still allowing comparisons to be drawn that show the play as able to transcend the limits of the early modern period.
The production will draw inspiration from the tantalizingly dangerous Mafia culture, creating a world which is at once glamorous and terrifying. It will run in Week 8 of the autumn semester. If you’re interested in being part of the production, in an acting or tech role, visit SuTCo’s website to keep up to date with upcoming auditions and tech-calls! You don’t need any experience, and we would love to have you on board! Tickets will go on sale closer to the time, so keep an eye out on Facebook for more information.