Just over six years ago, Hugh Colman and I began work on an adaptation of John Webster’s thrill-ride The Duchess of Malfi. In December 2006, our production of the script opened at Red Stitch in Melbourne, under the title Hellbent.
Today, I’m going in to chat on radio about a new production, opening at the Opera House in Sydney this Wednesday, directed by John Bell for the Bell Shakespeare Company, under the original title.
Preparing for that interview, I have been re-reading our text and also the original. I am surprised by how much we changed. I had grown accustomed to our version, but have been reminded of the boldness we achieved, in company with Rachel Burke and the original cast. More importantly though, I’ve been reminded of the exquisite, muscular, original and imaginative power of Webster’s language – and of its immediacy and accessibility.
That’s why we didn’t tamper with the words. Our version re-arranges and re-assigns the text; it tells a different story; it has a shift of focus – but it leaves the glory of Webster’s words intact. There are times when I think he might have bettered the bard.
But consider these lines, as the heroine faces her death, explaining that the rope with which she will be strangled holds no fear of her:
What would it pleasure me to have my throat cut
With diamonds? Or to be smothered
With cassia? Or to be shot to death with pearls?
Or this sharp poke at politicians:
I would sooner swim to the Bermudas on
Two politicians’ rotten bladders, tied
Together with an intelligencer’s heart-string,
Than depend on so changeable a leader’s favour.
Or his mordant humour, in this exchange between the Duchess and her twin brother:
– Diamonds are of most value they say, that have passed through most jeweller’s hands.
– Whores, by that rule, are precious.
And this wisdom:
Though some ministers hold it presumption
To instruct leaders what they ought to do,
It is a noble duty to inform them
What they ought to foresee.
I could go on. And on. Bur for those of you who live in Sydney, I hope you might come along and experience the wonders for yourself. The play is not often staged, due to the sprawling, wayward length of the uncut original. I hope ours makes a strong case for the resonances and value of the writing.
In another funny convergence, it was while revising our adaptation just over two years ago that I came across the detail about pilgrims that began my sin-walk. There were pilgrims in the original Webster script, and I was wondering if we should reinstate them. I began hunting down pilgrim lore, and learned of the sin-carrying custom. Webster’s pilgrims went, and I went on the road! And so the play led to the walk, which led to the book, Sinning Across Spain.
And so this week, many roads lead to the one place. The Opera House.
Our version ends with the words:
Mine is another voyage.
What a voyage Mr Webster has given me!
I thank him, my beautiful script collaborator Hugh Colman, the generous and wise John Bell, and all those who have wrangled and questioned the script through two productions. It has been a miraculous, gifted journey.
For those who don’t know them, the top photo is on the freeway at the entrance to Melbourne, and the bottom is crossing the bridge – that bridge – in Sydney.
Reviews for Duchess of Malfi can be read at these links:
The Radio National interview about Malfi can be found here: