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The Duchess of Malfi from Page to Stage: Professor Gisèle Venet talks to director Cecilia Dorland and actors Jack Christie and Pip Brignall

Cecilia Dorland, Gisèle Venet, Jack Christie et Pip Brignall


Conversation entre Gisèle Venet, Professeur émérite à l'Université Sorbonne nouvelle - Paris 3, et Cecilia Dorland, metteur en scène, et les acteurs Jack Christie and Pip Brignall, à propos de la mise en scène de The Duchess of Malfi créée à St Giles in the Field à Londres par la compagnie Scena Mundi Theatre (printemps 2017). L'entretien s'est tenu le 14 octobre 2018 à Paris.

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Gisèle Venet: Cecilia, you are an alumna of Paris, now working as a stage director in London where you run Scena Mundi Theatre, a company specialising in canonical dramatic texts from English and European literature. In 2017, you were nominated for a Best Stage Director award for the Offies (Off West End stage awards) for your staging of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Could you briefly introduce the production and the actors who are here with us today?

Cecilia Dorland: We staged Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi in the spring of 2017 with a cast of seven actors. Pip Brignall and Jack Christie, who are here today, played Ferdinand and Bosola respectively. The Duchess was played by a marvellous actress called Jess Murphy, who unfortunately could not be with us today. The other actors were Martin Prest (the Cardinal), Tom Winsor (Antonio), Joanna Simmonett (Cariola and Julia) and Rupert Bates (Delio). The play was staged in an eighteenth-century church in the heart of London, St Giles in the Fields.

Fig. 1: Poster for 2017 production of The Duchess of Malfi.

Fig. 1: Poster for 2017 production of The Duchess of Malfi.

Credits: Scena Mundi, 2017

Gisèle Venet: You are with us today to talk about the way you have worked to transpose the text into a living work of art, a play on the stage. We are interested in the process which takes a play “from page to stage.” Let us first talk about the setting of the play. Could you explain what made you decide to stage The Duchess in St Giles? I think “site specific” theatre is the term. How do you think this location was right for such a text?

Cecilia Dorland: When I was offered the space of St Giles in the Fields for a performance, I thought that The Duchess of Malfi would adapt very well to the building. With its simple, rather austere decoration, this Anglican church built in 1733 could enhance the dichotomy at the heart of Webster’s text between the “old” catholic church, the source of all corruption in Webster’s eyes and the “new” faith, with its upright, undecorated promise of renewal. On top of this thematic consideration, St Giles also offered an interesting space theatrically speaking: we could play right in front of the altar and use the gallery, the pulpit and all the nooks and crannies of the church. That would prove very valuable for a play which relies on semi-darkness and theatricality for its plot and in which one of the main characters (Bosola) spends his time hiding and eavesdropping on others. Thus the playing space of St Giles allowed me to contextualise the text both intellectually and spatially.

Fig. 2 and Fig. 3: The Church of Saint Giles in the Fields in Holborn, London (exterior and interior)

Fig. 2 and Fig. 3: The Church of Saint Giles in the Fields in Holborn, London (exterior and interior)


Credits: St Giles in the Fields

Gisèle Venet: In your staging, you managed both to have a powerful “vision” of Webster’s text—yet without any precluded interpretation—and an extreme attention to every detail. For example, even before the play starts properly, as the audience find their seats, the atmosphere is prepared with incense burning, the music of Josquin Desprez’s Missa Pro Defunctis and the actors above in the gallery dressed as penitents with black hoods, holding lit candles and chanting.

Cecilia Dorland: Yes. I always pay attention to the “pre-show” atmosphere. When you stage a play in a historical building, the performance starts for the audience at the moment they enter the space. It is rewarding for them to be immediately taken into “the world of the play”—in this case (if I can afford a rather bold phrase in this context), the “smells and bells” would trigger connotations of the catholic church and contrast with what was to come. At the same time, the Missa Pro Defunctis created a solemn, deadly atmosphere and the penitents looking down from the gallery pre-empted the madmen of Act 4.

Gisèle Venet: The play then started with the entrance, at the back of the church, of the Duchess, beautifully interpreting Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre on the violin, and followed by all the actors, still dressed as penitents. It was a very effective opening. How did you come to choose such a compelling way of getting your audience to “see” or “hear” differently from the start?

Cecilia Dorland: I start all my stagings with music—it has become one of the staples of my work. The Danse macabre walking up the aisle introduced at once the twin themes of deadly marriage and the macabre. The actors met in a strange, broken dance by the altar and I chose to have them say all together the lines:

As ravens, screech-owls, bulls, and bears,
We 'll bill, and bawl our parts,
Till irksome noise have cloy'd your ears
And corrosived your hearts. (4.2.64-67)

This announces, as it were, what is going to happen. Once again, the idea is to extract clues from the page to give them a physical resonance in the acting space so that audiences see and hear the world of the play before delving into it.

Gisèle Venet: The Danse macabre was indeed a good introduction to a theme which is prevalent in the play and worded mainly by the character of Bosola. You had the actor playing Bosola stand in the pulpit for his fake “meditation,” which really showed him as a malcontent preacher seeming to address a congregation from high up.

Cecilia Dorland: Bosola is, after the Duchess, the main character in the play. He is a constant presence. I think Jack [Christie], who played the part, could explain to us the way he worked on creating the character.

  • 1 1.1.57-60. “There are rewards or hawks and dogs, when they have done us service; but for a soldier (...)

Jack Christie: When I play a part, I always try to find the type of animal which would best go with my character. In the case of Bosola, I saw him as the spider at the centre of a web. He is silent and knows how to bide his time, keeping his movements to a minimum. Dressed all in black, he weaves his web of deceit around the others. The moment one makes a move, he is shaken out of his apparent somnolence and leaps on them. Bosola relies on “a kind of geometry”—Webster gives him the phrase—and is in a precarious, acrobatic balance.1 His melancholy goes beyond a pose, though, it is deeply rooted in the character and does not stop him from having a conscience which wakes up at the end of the play.

Gisèle Venet: Yes, in that respect there is more to Bosola than a dramatic “type.” He is wry and disenchanted but his words do have a metaphysical scope and his failure to redeem himself is real tragic irony.

Cecilia Dorland: Let’s hear that “meditation,” the speech Bosola gives in Act 2, Scene 1, standing in the pulpit. [Jack Christie performs Bosola’s speech at 2.1.45-71.]

Fig. 4: Jack Christie performing Bosola’s speech (2.1.45-71).

Fig. 4: Jack Christie performing Bosola’s speech (2.1.45-71).

Credits: Jim Creighton, 2017.

Gisèle Venet: As Jack played these lines, the striking imagery in Webster’s verse really came out. Could you explain how you worked on the poetry with the actors?

Cecilia Dorland: Classically-trained actors are usually very good at Shakespearean verse—they can “find their way” though it and learn to work with its rhythm and poetic imagery. There is something fluid in Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter and a poetic harmony in his verse, even in the most tragic passages, which is not the case at all in Webster’s. On the contrary, a text like The Duchess of Malfi is broken up, the lines often have eleven, twelve, sometimes even fourteen beats and it is difficult for an actor to find a “pace.” The rhythm is always disrupted, it is irregular. In the same way, we found as we worked on the images, that they are harsh, undecorated, more immediate, if you like. It is very black and raw imagery which does show “the skull beneath the skin,” as T. S. Eliot said.

Fig. 5: Thomas Winsor (Antonio), Jess Murphy (the Duchess) and Joanna Simmonett (Cariola), working script in hand at an early stage in rehearsal.

Fig. 5: Thomas Winsor (Antonio), Jess Murphy (the Duchess) and Joanna Simmonett (Cariola), working script in hand at an early stage in rehearsal.

Credits: Scena Mundi, 2017.

Gisèle Venet: It is something which can also be said of the narrative structure of Webster’s plays. How did you deal with that in your mise-en-scène?

Cecilia Dorland: It is true that The Duchess of Malfi is structurally a “broken” tragedy. The narration progresses in stops and starts, with moments when description takes over from action, as in Act 1, when Antonio describes the three siblings. His speech is a long commentary on Ferdinand, the Cardinal and the Duchess and I chose to “freeze” the action in order to have Antonio commenting a tableau—the three siblings frozen in time. As we progressed in the rehearsals, we noticed that many lines could actually be heard as commentaries on the action to come, narrative warnings or insights into the characters. I am thinking for example of the Duchess’s “Wish me good speed; / For I am going into a wilderness / Where I shall find nor path nor friendly clew / To be my guide” (1.1.348-351), or Cariola’s “Whether the spirit of greatness or of woman / Reign most in her, I know not, but it shows / A fearful madness: I owe her much of pity” (1.1.487-489). So I decided to have these moments singled out in the staging. A bell was heard before and after the lines in question to underline their importance and give them a relief in the play. They were to be heard by the audience as clues as the story unfolded. I saw them as “arrêts sur image”.

Gisèle Venet: This gave a very stylised quality to the play. Would it be right to say that you wanted to counteract “naturalism” in your staging and a certain recourse to “psychology” in the actors’ work?

Cecilia Dorland: Yes, I find that somehow naturalism does not do justice to repertoire plays and I try to keep away from naturalistic stagings. I always attempt to find an aesthetic dimension to my work, and I think a play like The Duchess of Malfi is not only about a story, but about a mode of storytelling. A mise-en-scène is an artistic vision which shows the text and has to find a coherent palette to do so. As for character psychology, I always tell the actors that there is a risk in wanting to find too much of it in early modern roles. Most actors’ training is inspired by Stanislavski and his reliance on psychological realism—it pervades everything they do on stage. That method is not always the most adapted to older texts. It would call for a long debate and there is no time or place for it now. I am sure many directors and actors would think this heretical, but I sometimes find myself encouraging actors to “stick to the text,” and not delve too deep into or try to answer questions which are not relevant about their characters. I think that can apply to The Duchess of Malfi. I’ll give you an example, and I hope that Pip Brignall, who played Ferdinand, will help me explain my point. With a role like that of Ferdinand, the questions of verisimilitude and psychological realism take on great importance as the character is remote from any recognisable person. The actor has to work really hard at creating him. What could you tell us about that process, Pip?

Pip Brignall: When I have to play a character, the first thing I do is try and find what in this character is similar to me—I ask myself what of me I can put in him. With a character like Ferdinand, of course, it’s difficult because there is very little in me that is in sympathy with him. The hysterical fits and the lycanthropic tendencies are particularly alien to me, so I need to find a way to show them. My natural instinct is to “underdo” those elements because they seem so unnatural that I am worried my character will lose all veracity if I go too far. That’s why I find it difficult to follow Cecilia’s advice when she asks me to play the wolf, for example. It seems totally “over the top” and as an actor I want to be believed.

Cecilia Dorland: Yes, and my tendency is to push for “more,” as I think that it goes with our stylised production. How much do you really worry about psychological realism when you portray a character who feels like a wolf, all hairy inside? Do you play it down or, on the contrary, “go for it” and play the madness? We have to discuss that carefully and reach a compromise: Pip needs to feel his Ferdinand is “plausible” and he can sustain his characterisation and I need him to be “large enough” in his acting to be in keeping with the slightly magnified vision I have of the play. I think we should hear a passage illustrating the difficulties of playing a character like Ferdinand. This is the moment when Ferdinand has just heard from Bosola that his sister is married and tells the Cardinal. Jack Christie will read the Cardinal and Pip Brignall his role as Ferdinand. [Jack Christie and Pip Brignall perform Act 2, Scene 5.]

Gisèle Venet: This scene ends on Ferdinand’s wish to “fix [the Duchess] in a general eclipse” and I think you have used this idea of the planetary eclipse in your work on the play, at least as a starting point?

Cecilia Dorland: One of the passages I find most striking in the play is the exchange between the Duchess and Bosola in Act 4, Scene 1:

Duchess I could curse the stars—
Bosola Oh, fearful!
Duchess And those three smiling seasons of the year
Into a Russian winter — nay, the world
To its first chaos.
Bosola Look you, the stars shine still. (4.1.93-97)

These lines are poignant because they really tell of the absence of empathy between man and the cosmos—an idea which was very modern in Webster’s time and which takes on its full tragic dimension here. It struck me that there was something of an eclipse in the whole trajectory of the play. From the brothers’ discovery of the duchess’s marriage, all their efforts are fixed on eclipsing her, making her disappear, and that is achieved at the end of Act 4 with her death. Figuratively, the light goes down after her death. She’s the only bright star in the play and once she’s no longer on stage, things descend into darkness. I decided to make the stage darker after her death so that the semi-shadow of Act 5 reflected the blackness the plot led into, with the revenge tragedy focusing on Bosola and his own contrary stars. Jack, you got quite interested in the “bogus” aspect of the horoscope used by Bosola and you talked of a vortex, didn’t you?

Jack Christie: As part of the rehearsal process, we worked with an astrologer who explained how all the references to horoscopes and charts in the play were fake. Bosola uses them in a sarcastic way to plan his evil. It is the time of Copernicus, the astrological telescope which allows to see the moon (the Cardinal refers to it in a scene with Julia) and the end of the central position of man in the universe. That’s the idea of the malcontent cut from transcendence, left with his conscience only, a modern man.

Gisèle Venet: Indeed, the horoscope is a trace from the past, it no longer serves any “metaphysical purpose,” but the fact that it is fake emphasises man’s dereliction, his separation from an emphatic cosmos. The tragic irony of Bosola’s fate, his real curse, is that he cannot redeem himself or repair the evil he has caused.

Cecilia Dorland: I often positioned my characters in a triangular shape on stage as I saw in this shape a way to convey the narrative peak in scenic space: the crescendo leading up to the death of the Duchess then falls into the vortex. It also serves to show the Duchess’s position at the top of this Arragonian dynastic pyramid. She is the summit as the family will never reach such another height, but she is also the one in between her two siblings, tied as on a rack. It is an image we get back to in her death scene of course. The Duchess is led to question her own identity when faced with Bosola’s description of her as “a box of wormseed” (4.2.115) yet “some great woman, sure” in Act 4 (4.2.125). She needs reassurance. “Am not I thy Duchess?” (4.1.124) and “I am Duchess of Malfi still” (4.1.131) are two moments, one of doubt and the other of affirmation, showing that she needs to hold on to her title as the defining force in her. It is because she is the Duchess that all the “misery of [those] that are born great” (1.1.429) has come upon her, but also thanks to her status that she finds her way through the macabre make-believe and does not lose her mind. Never in the play does the Duchess give in to hysteria. The only hysterical character is Ferdinand.

Gisèle Venet: Yes, the themes of the macabre and the make-believe are of course brought together in the character of Ferdinand as he uses a fake macabre to “bring her to despair” (4.1.114), but is in fact the only one who loses his mind. A lot of emphasis was given in your mise-en-scène to his “sick” love, ending in madness. That was made all the more horrible, shocking and disturbing as you chose to show real love and tenderness between the twins. Shall we see the end of Act 3, Scene 2, in which Ferdinand steals upon his sister and threatens her in what is in fact a deathly declaration of love? In the absence of Jess Murphy, you will play the Duchess. [Pip Brignall and Cecilia Dorland perform Act 3, Scene 2, l. 57-139.]

Cecilia Dorland: I wanted to show real tenderness and possible eroticism between the twins, and the clash created by Ferdinand’s unpredictable violence. To that end, the beauty of the couple, the possible sexual tension between them, was important. I worked with the actors to create the bond between them. Pip can tell you about the “back story” they invented to explain the relationship between Ferdinand and his sister. I suppose, Pip, it is another instance of the actor’s difficulty to understand an incestuous character and his need to find an origin to that disorder to make things more credible to himself and the audience?

Fig. 6: Pip Brignall (Ferdinand) and Jess Murphy (the Duchess) rehearsing Act 3, Sc. 2.

Fig. 6: Pip Brignall (Ferdinand) and Jess Murphy (the Duchess) rehearsing Act 3, Sc. 2.

Credits: Scena Mundi, 2017

Pip Brignall: Jess and I worked on the relationship between Ferdinand and the Duchess by creating a background story for them. It is part of our research work, it is psychological research which does not find its way into our performances as such but helps us achieve them. An example of the psychological realism we need as actors—Cecilia will not like that very much! We imagined an instance in their childhood when they were very close. As children, they shared a moment of sexual intimacy, perhaps, or at least of ambiguous closeness, but whereas the Duchess grew up, got married and forgot about it, Ferdinand never did. He is still lusting for her and she has left him behind.

Cecilia Dorland: The creation of such a history shared by their characters is one of the many tools actors use to inhabit roles which are extreme, and to create the relationships the play demands. It informs their performances and in that respect is of course very useful as it gives them a physical and psychological bond when on stage. It is a little different from psychological realism, in fact it’s more shared, pre-performance storytelling.

Gisèle Venet: This takes us to another scene with the twins, that of the fake hand, and therefore to the theme of “make-believe” and theatre, the staging of the macabre moments by Ferdinand and Bosola.

Cecilia Dorland: I am always surprised when productions of The Duchess of Malfi use a lot of fake blood and gory images. It seems to me the whole point is that there is in fact very little gore in the play—all is make-believe. There are no real dead bodies and severed limbs, just props—the suggestion of the horror but not its reality. The Duchess is shown wax effigies and exposed to madmen, but unlike plays like ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore or The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi uses the macabre but shows very little of it. Bosola talks about the macabre, decay, corruption, worms and skulls are, but these things don't actually happen on stage. The only blood there could be, should one want to use any, would appear in Act 5 as the characters are killed in what is after all a very typical tragic ending. Even the death of the Duchess, which is “live”, is in fact sublimated by Webster—we’ll talk of that at more length later. It seemed important to make it clear to the audience that the macabre they were shown was actually fake, a theatrical device used within the plot and not the real thing.

Gisèle Venet: These props must have posed practical problems that you solved beautifully: the hanging bodies inflicted in torture to the Duchess, as she suddenly shouts, horrified, making the whole audience turn round to look at the back of church, were translucent hallucination-like bodies hanging above the gallery. They were very effective, but there was no attempt at making them look real.

Cecilia Dorland: No, that was the point. The effect was achieved thanks to our very creative stage manager, Penny Rischmiller, who thought of wrapping mannequins in many, very tight layers of cling film to create a semi-transparent shell through which a light could be shone to great effect.

Gisèle Venet: You were interested in the morbidity but wanted to avoid the “Grand Guignol,” which unfortunately seems to be the usual theatrical answer to these poetics of the “macabre.” It goes with the point you made earlier about avoiding the hysteria—how many screaming duchesses have we seen on the stage over the years!

Cecilia Dorland: Yes, I think that if she is hysterical and gives in to terror, then the whole power of her death scene is missed.

Gisèle Venet: Yes, let’s talk about this amazing “death scene” which, paradoxically, is very simple after the elaborate theatrical shows staged by Ferdinand and executed by Bosola. You told us that for you it represented the acme of the play and that you saw the narrative structure as the rising movement up to the Duchess’s death. It is an apex of emotion, a moment of divine grace, almost a wished-for relief after the anti-masque of the madmen, which has something devilish about it.

Cecilia Dorland: After the anxiety caused by the mad songs and dance and the relentless acting cruelty of Bosola, the strangling of the Duchess is, paradoxically, a moment of calm and stillness, a sort of suspension, a time when the audience can hold their breath precisely as breath is drawn out of the Duchess. From the beginning of the play, the Duchess’s death is chronicled and when it happens, it is wished for by the audience as much as it is by the Duchess on the stage. What is incredible is that the morbid pleasure Ferdinand took in tormenting his sister is somehow transferred to the audience who feel a frisson of excitement combined with horror as the “live” strangling takes place. Of course, from a theatrical point of view, the staging of death is a problem to be solved, but Webster helps the director a lot. The executioners’ entrance and necessary props are written in the text as are the stage directions for the strangling itself.

Fig. 7: Rupert Bates and Martin Prest rehearsing the execution of the Duchess with the shroud and rope.

Fig. 7: Rupert Bates and Martin Prest rehearsing the execution of the Duchess with the shroud and rope.

Credits: Scena Mundi, 2017

The fascination the death scene creates comes from its simplicity. The Duchess stands, then kneels at the centre of the stage with the executioners on either side of her. I decided, once again, to avoid naturalism and asked the actress to hold the rope in front of her neck as the executioners could then fake the pulling movement. I kept the lighting low and focused on her face. I wanted to show the Duchess on the threshold of life and death, poised, Christ-like, hopeful and not scared. There is a divine grace in that moment which transcends and redeems the horror of it—and the sick pleasure audiences feel at watching the execution. [Jack Christie, Pip Brignall and Cecilia Dorland perform Act 4, Scene 2, l. 115-223.]

The paradoxical “sigh of relief” as the Duchess breathes her last is extremely short-lived. Immediately afterwards, the hysterical tension is at its peak again with the entrance of Ferdinand. It is magnified by the morbid beauty of his incestuous love, his pain and madness. Ferdinand cuddles up to the dead body, in a last necrophiliac fit of love for his dead sister. If there is any macabre in the play, I think it is at that moment, when Ferdinand cannot avert his eyes from his sister’s corpse. As much as he hated and feared her body when she was alive, he adores and pays a last, erotic homage to her corpse. The real voyeurism and decay lie in staging the encounter of Eros and Thanatos so clearly in a way which keeps the audience as transfixed as Ferdinand is.

From then on, all masks are off, especially Bosola’s, but also Ferdinand’s. Yet Webster likes to play tricks on his characters and audience. In an incredible yet very short “coup de theatre”, the Duchess briefly comes back to life, allowing Bosola to make what poor amends he can to her. This “second death” of the Duchess is almost a trick too many, it veers on the bad taste, but it cues in Bosola’s determination to revenge as his only hope of redemption has just been snatched from him.

Gisèle Venet: You said that Act 5 was Bosola’s act.

Cecilia Dorland: As the Duchess dies and Ferdinand gives in to melancholy, Bosola takes over as the main character and leads the end of the play. In rehearsals, we worked on the exact moment when Bosola is “converted” from villain of the piece to anti-hero. Jack, can you tell us what was the triggering point for you?

Jack Christie: I always felt it was the moment when Ferdinand denies him the reward promised for killing the Duchess. When he is told that all he’ll get is “a pardon” from a man whose moral abjection he knows only too well, Bosola’s precarious world collapses. The geometry that kept him standing is proved to be a false, impossible equilibrium. As Ferdinand denies him, he sees the error of his ways. He is then the victim of a cruel fate as the Duchess’s death only makes his newly-found remorse useless. He becomes a tragic hero, or rather a tragic anti-hero at that moment, a man wronged in his last chance to redeem himself.

Gisèle Venet: The way Bosola kills Antonio by mistake is a very compelling example of tragic irony. Is that why you decided to finish the play on Bosola and total silence? You did alter Webster’s ending a little—can you talk about that and the way you treated the final scene?

Cecilia Dorland: My choice of ending was motivated by two categories of reasons. First, from a narrative point of view, I wanted to leave the audience with the message of utter destruction which I think is appropriate to our contemporary reading of The Duchess of Malfi. The hasty ending Webster wrought with the young Duke taking over appeared incongruous after the darkness we had exposed for two hours. Of course, it is the prerogative of a theatre director to make changes to a work of art and I am aware that it imposes a reading which is not the original one. In this case I thought it did no injustice to the core message of Webster’s play.

Secondly, from an aesthetic point of view, I wanted an ending which was visually and aurally satisfying and in keeping with the rest of my staging. One thing I was keen to avoid was dead corpses littering the stage. This is a prosaic point, but I think that there is a lack of decorum to that which I did not want on my stage. It is also terribly impractical to have to pull away dead corpses, and then see them get back to their feet. I worked with the actors and we came to a solution. It was decided that the “dead” characters would assemble in the nave after their “death” and wait standing up until, at the end, Bosola called them back on stage into the triangular shape of the beginning through his final monologue. We gave him the last word as he acknowledges how his actions have occupied the stage. For the purpose of this scene, it has been necessary to alter the line order and give Delio words which are pronounced by Malateste and Roderigo in the original script and the text has been reshuffled a little. [Jack Christie performs Act 5, scene 5.]

DELIO Oh, sad disaster! How comes this? [...]
BOSOLA In a mist; I know not how—
Such a mistake as I have often seen
In a play. Oh, I am gone!
We are only like dead walls or vaulted graves
That, ruined, yield no echo.
DELIO Thou wretched thing of blood,
What hast thou done?
BOSOLA Revenge—for the Duchess of Malfi, murdered
By th'Arragonian brethren; for Antonio
Slain by this hand; for lustful Julia
Poisoned by this man; and lastly for myself,
That was an actor in the main of all,
Much 'gainst mine own good nature, yet i' th' end
Neglected. Oh, this gloomy world!
In what a shadow or deep pit of darkness
Doth, womanish and fearful mankind live!

Gisèle Venet: You chose to finish on the complete dereliction of mankind, which is in keeping with the descent into chaos you have described all along. Bosola addresses the audience in a tragic and sober “recapitulation” leading to the silence of the grave. It is interesting to conclude on the end of all echoes—there are no more voices, the universe is silent too and we are left with fear as the only human way to live. I would like to thank you for explaining part of the interesting process at work when you lift a text from a book to make it into a living play—literally, from page to stage.

Fig. 8: The Duchess of Malfi company’s curtain call.

Fig. 8: The Duchess of Malfi company’s curtain call.

Credits: Lidia Crisafulli, 2017

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Webster John. The Duchess of Malfi [1613]. Ed. Michael Neill. Norton Critical Editions. London and New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.

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1 1.1.57-60. “There are rewards or hawks and dogs, when they have done us service; but for a soldier that hazards his limbs in a battle, nothing but a kind of geometry is his last supportation.”

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Poster for 2017 production of The Duchess of Malfi.
Crédits Credits: Scena Mundi, 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 448k
Titre Fig. 2 and Fig. 3: The Church of Saint Giles in the Fields in Holborn, London (exterior and interior)
Fichier image/png, 603k
Crédits Credits: St Giles in the Fields
Fichier image/png, 882k
Titre Fig. 4: Jack Christie performing Bosola’s speech (2.1.45-71).
Crédits Credits: Jim Creighton, 2017.
Fichier image/jpeg, 372k
Titre Fig. 5: Thomas Winsor (Antonio), Jess Murphy (the Duchess) and Joanna Simmonett (Cariola), working script in hand at an early stage in rehearsal.
Crédits Credits: Scena Mundi, 2017.
Fichier image/jpeg, 420k
Titre Fig. 6: Pip Brignall (Ferdinand) and Jess Murphy (the Duchess) rehearsing Act 3, Sc. 2.
Crédits Credits: Scena Mundi, 2017
Fichier image/png, 7,1M
Titre Fig. 7: Rupert Bates and Martin Prest rehearsing the execution of the Duchess with the shroud and rope.
Crédits Credits: Scena Mundi, 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 632k
Titre Fig. 8: The Duchess of Malfi company’s curtain call.
Crédits Credits: Lidia Crisafulli, 2017
Fichier image/jpeg, 443k
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Cecilia Dorland, Gisèle Venet, Jack Christie et Pip Brignall, « The Duchess of Malfi from Page to Stage: Professor Gisèle Venet talks to director Cecilia Dorland and actors Jack Christie and Pip Brignall »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 26 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 janvier 2019, consulté le 19 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Cecilia Dorland

Cecilia is the Artistic Director of Scena Mundi Theatre which she founded in 2013. She read English Literature at la Sorbonne and trained in classical theatre at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London. She has worked as a theatre practitioner and academic in London (including two years as a researcher for Shakespeare’s Globe). Her credits for Scena Mundi include: Leocadia (Landor Theatre), John Lyly’s Love Metamorphosis (The Pentameters, Hampstead), Everyman, Murder in the Cathedral, Richard II and Edward II (all at St Bartholomew the Great, City of London), Volpone, or the Fox (The Brockley Jack), Twelfth Night (The French Protestant Church, Soho). She was nominated for an Offie for Best Director for The Duchess of Malfi (St Giles in the Fields, London).

Cecilia Dorland est metteure en scène et directrice artistique de Scena Mundi Theatre, une compagnie qu’elle a fondée en 2013. Elle a étudié la littérature anglaise à la Sorbonne, Paris et le théâtre classique à la London School of Speech and Drama. Elle a travaillé dans les milieux universitaire et théâtral en Grande-Bretagne (elle a notamment été chercheuse au Globe Theatre pendant deux ans). Avec sa compagnie, elle a mis en scène Léocadia (Landor Theatre, Londres), Love’s Metamorphosis (The Pentameters, Hampstead, Londres), Everyman, Murder in the Cathedral, Richard II et Edward II (St Bartholomew the Great, Londres), Volpone (The Brockley Jack), Twelfth Night (The French Protestant Church, Soho, Londres). En 2017, elle a reçu une nomination des Offies (jury du théâtre “off-West-End” à Londres) pour le prix de “Meilleure metteure en scène de théâtre” pour sa mise en scène de The Duchess of Malfi (St Giles in the Fields, Londres).

Gisèle Venet

Gisèle Venet is Professor Emerita at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3. She is the author of Temps et vision tragique. Shakespeare et ses contemporains (Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2002), in which she focussed on the Baroque in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. She has widely published on the period. In particular she has edited a series of critical editions — Webster’s Duchess of Malfi (which she has also translated), John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, and Shakespeare’s works, co-directing with J.-M. Deprats the Gallimard bilingual eight-volume Œuvres Complètes (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade). The research seminar she created in 1990 under the name Epistémè has led to the creation of a peer-reviewed electronic journal

Gisèle Venet est Professeur émérite à l'Université Sorbonne Nouvelle-Paris 3. Après une thèse d’état sur Temps et vision tragique. Shakespeare et ses contemporains (Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2002) qui dégageait déjà les composantes baroques de ces auteurs, elle a enseigné et dirigé des travaux sur Shakespeare et ses contemporains, publiant, outre de nombreux articles sur la période maniériste et baroque, des éditions critiques, le plus souvent bilingues (Webster, aux Belles Lettres, et en collaboration étroite avec J.-M. Déprats, John Ford, Robert Burton, et surtout Shakespeare chez Gallimard, en Folio Théâtre ou dans la Bibliothèque de la Pléiade). Le séminaire de recherche qu’elle a fondé en 1990 sous le nom Epistémè, se prolonge désormais par une revue électronique avec comité de lecture,

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Jack Christie

Jack Christie trained at the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts and graduated in 2013. He has worked extensively in theatre in London and the UK since then. The Duchess of Malfi marked his fifth appearance with Scena Mundi Theatre. Previous roles include Bishop of Winchester (Edward II), Lord Marshall (Richard II), Sir Peregrine (Volpone, or the Fox), Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night), all for Scena Mundi, Mercutio and Lord Capulet in Romeo and Juliet and Caliban and Ferdinand in The Tempest for The Young Shakespeare Company and Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew for The Merely Players.

Jack Christie a étudié l’art dramatique à la Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts de Londres, qu’il a quittée en 2013. Depuis, il joue régulièrement à Londres et dans l’ensemble du Royaume-Uni. La Duchesse d’Amalfi a marqué sa cinquième coopération avec Scena Mundi Theatre avec qui il a aussi joué l’Evêque de Winchester (Edward II), Le Lord Marshall (Richard II), Sir Peregrine (Volpone, ou le renard) et Sir Toby Belch (La nuit des rois). Pour The Young Shakespeare Company, il a interprété Mercutio et Lord Capulet dans Roméo et Juliette et Caliban et Ferdinand dans La Tempête pour The Merely Players.

Pip Brignall

Pip Brignall has worked with prominent theatre companies in London and Europe including taking leading roles with Scena Mundi Theatre Company (Murder in the Cathedral, Richard II, Edward II, Volpone, or the Fox and The Duchess of Malfi), Anonymous is a Woman (Think of England) and European Arts Company (The Picture of Dorian Gray). He most recently played the lead role in feature film Sodom released globally by TLA Releasing in September 2018. He is co-founder and Creative Producer of Reality Check Productions, developing narrative storytelling with immersive technology.

Pip Brignall a travaillé avec de nombreuses troupes de théâtre de renom en Grande-Bretagne et en Europe, interprétant des premiers rôles pour Scena Mundi Theatre (Meurtre dans la cathédrale, Richard II, Edward II, Volpone, ou le renard et La Duchesse d’Amalfi), Anonymous is a Woman (Think of England) et European Arts Company (Le Portrait de Dorian Gray). Il a récemment joué dans le film Sodom (distribution : TLA Releasing, Septembre 2018). Il est co-fondeur et directeur de production artistique de Reality Check Productions, une compagnie spécialisée dans la création de contenu narratif pour les technologies immersives.

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Sillages critiques est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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