Act 4 of The Duchess of Malfi presents all sorts of difficulties for directors/actors, and for the audience. Webster has been plodding along in a heightened, but relatively "normal" place of lies and deceit. Then we get to act 4 and all hell breaks loose. It has been said that Strindberg takes a moment that in a naturalistic play would be a minute and makes the whole play of it. Webster has done this in act 4...for all intents and purposes, really, we could just see the duchess be strangled, having heard of the torture. Instead, Webster gives us these gloriously juicy scenes with Ferdinand offering her a severed hand, madmen in her chamber singing and dancing, a disguised Bosola, executioners, coffins, and two deaths. Not to mention the marathon speeches of Bosola and Ferdinand at the end of the act. So given all this...how on EARTH do you put this on stage?

For yesterday's class, my group was charged with preparing act 4 scene 2. We were all agreed that there is a need to step outside of a naturalistic approach; first, because there are a ton of characters and we only had 5 people, and second because we needed to make the violence real, shocking, and not silly for a modern audience. We played around quite a lot, trying out ideas, working collaboratively on what might work. We ended with the idea to be influenced a bit by plays like Marat/Sade and have this scene located in a common room of an insane asylum. All chairs were placed around the full playing space, mostly single chairs, but the odd pairing...each facing different directions toward the front of the room, where the duchess sat alone, facing out to the crowd. All other performers were placed amongst the crowd as their neutral madmen, and popped in and out of the scene as various characters, contributing to the Duchess' terror. Our goal was to really help the audience feel her resignation, feel uneasy about what was coming at them, and ensure that everyone had a different perspective of what occurred in the scene, some seeing things that others missed and so on. The action moved around the space so sometimes audience members from certain places could only hear the text, not see the actor. This worked quite well in presentation, most comments indicated that this had really worked for them, the cacaphony of sound and position of the text distanced over the large space helped with the sense of the time and place.

Our second issue was all of the violence in this scene. Two strangulations, some dead babies. We opted to make the strangulations highly expressionistic; the executioner for the Duchess and later for Cariola faced away from the audience, never touching the victim, but doing a gesture of strangulation which was mirrored by the person dying. From here, Bosola's directions would snap us back to the madhouse and the "executioner" would return to their chair. Again with the children, we made use of the madmen; the scarf that one madman had worn was left at a chair, and became a baby to indicate the dead children.

Overall this premise worked quite well, and would be good to investigate further. Might it be possible to stage the play in this way in its entirety?