The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.The Looking Glass Theatre, directed by Nicholas Bolonkin. The Street Theatre, November 2 – 9, 1996, 8 pm (matinees Sunday 3rd and Saturday 9th, 3 pm).
"The skull beneath the skin" is where you will begin with this revenge thriller, opening on Saturday. Where you will end is being emotionally stirred, intellectually challenged and thoroughly entertained, if Nicholas Bolonkin achieves his aims. The Looking Glass Theatre has already had great success with its Shakespeare Festival productions. As William's career was concluding with The Tempest in 1612, John Webster was writing "passionate tragedies of love and political intrigue in Renaissance Italy, full of horror and exceptional cruelty, but validated by the macabre power of imagination, the dramatic force of their greatest scenes and the beauty of their poetry."
Will you have to pretend to be 400 years old to enjoy this play? The answer is both yes and no. Bolonkin is almost a Renaissance figure himself - an Honours graduate in Chemistry who finds it necessary to study for an Arts degree with Drama, because of "all those productions I've seen which make me want to tear my hair out!" He says he is a cynic, befitting our post-1980s times, when Bond, Skase et al tear the social fabric for their personal gain and politicians speak mealy-mouthed about social values while getting into bed with big business here and internationally. Just as we may mourn today the possibilities of the 1970s, so, according to Bolonkin, Webster's conception was "Our Virgin Queen [Elizabeth I] is dead - our new King [James I] is a poof - our World is going to End."
Rather than ask you to transport yourself so far back in time, Bolonkin has found the 19th Century's obsession with sex and death exactly parallels Webster's time - and ours. The connection is in science: the need to codify, classify and catalogue every little detail in the encyclopaedias of the 1850s produced exquisite drawings - images of scientific precision and neurotic obsession which we feel are part of our world yet connect us back to the world of Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. So Phil Rolfe has produced huge visual images crisply front-projected on three screens, with more subliminal effects on the cyclorama, all designed to focus the intensity of the play. Entertained you will be, but be prepared not to be squeamish. The skull beneath the skin will be laid bare.
Talking to Nicholas Bolonkin is exciting, for here maybe, at last, is the energy and intellectual drive coming from the ANU for which Canberra theatre has been hungry for fifty years. Somehow, this city, for so many of those years a swag of public servants alongside one of the top research institutions, cringed to the Sydney/Melbourne world of theatre. Perhaps this was because the research was so centred on science, and the practical arts have been fogged in like a Canberra winter's morning - the sun was shining above, but hidden. Bolonkin crosses the boundaries, a cynic with a purpose, demystifying history.
Webster's play may be a revenge tragedy; I suspect Bolonkin's production will be the cynic's revenge. In the 1990s we are gradually becoming inured not just to violence, sex and death but to the underlying belief that we can always get away with just a little bit more - until evil overreaches itself, and finally everything collapses. It will be ironic to be entertained by The Duchess of Malfi as our World goes towards its End.© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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