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The Duchess of Malfi: A Staged Reading by Shakespeare Bash’d| Shakespeare in Toronto

By October 19, 2018 No Comments

This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. It’s Tori here with the latest in Shakespeare news from Toronto.

Shakespeare Bash’d is launching their 2018/ 2019 season on October 28th with a staged reading of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. This Jabobean play details a woman who marries for love beneath her social station and the lengths her brothers go to exact their revenge against her. It’s gory, its dark, and it depicts despicable characters with no redeeming qualities, but it is also one of the most compelling tragedies written in the early modern period. I know that with Bashd this play is in good hands. I had the opportunity to chat with Julia, the director, and co-artistic director and founder, as well as the actors playing Ferdinand and the Duchess to get their take on what makes The Duchess of Malfi such an exciting reading to be a part of.
Malfi Event Image
Why have you decided to do a staged reading of the Duchess of Mafi? Do you see any parallels between the themes of the play and society today?
At the time that we chose the play for our season, it didn’t feel quite as immediately relevant as it does today. There were some practical reasons for choosing the play, one being that we really wanted to explore something by Webster in our reading series, and after reading The Duchess of Malfi, I fell in love with it. I loved the absurdity of some of the plot points (werewolves, poisoned bibles!) but also the characters; specifically the Duchess. What a strong, steadfast female character, which is not something we always see in plays from this period.

Now, in light of the current political climate, and the obvious disregard for the rights of women, especially in terms of a woman’s control over her own body, this play is depressingly current. The Duchess is a powerful woman, who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it. The world she lives in and the men in power (her brothers) don’t think she has the right to make choices for herself and spend the play attempting to control her, even literally imprisoning her, all because she wants to live life in a way they don’t like. It’s straight from any news story today.

How does the play fit in with the rest of your season?
The reading series really serves as an opportunity to delve deeper into the work of some of Shakespeare’s contemporary writers. We felt it was important to add Webster to the list of writers we’ve explored in this way. In terms of how it fits with the season overall, the whole season explores domestic relationships, all through different perspectives and with different stakes, but in each of these plays, we’re looking at families: husbands and wives, children and parents, sisters and brothers. We’re exploring the larger implications involved in these relationships.

What are you most excited about for this reading?
I’m so excited for an audience to experience this play potentially for the first time. That’s one of the things I love most about our staged readings, the plays are often new to the audience and we get to see people watch a story unfold and not know what happens next. As a company doing plays from 400 years ago, that’s rare for us!

What are you most nervous about?
I’m still in the process of figuring out how we will stage some of the more absurd moments Webster has written for us. It’s a staged reading, so we need to keep things simple, but still, make sure the audience can follow the story and gets the idea of some of the stranger visuals that are mentioned in stage directions. I’m still brainstorming, but I have no doubt we’ll find something fun and gory to share with everyone!

It’s going to be a lot of fun. Webster was a playwright who just went for it. Blood, romance, comedy, crassness, he did it all, and all of it in one play. This play is perfect for Halloween and we’re going to embrace the time of year and share this lovely gruesome story.

How has it been working with BASH’d for the first time?
It’s been a dream. BASH’d has been one of those companies I have longed to work with for quite some time. Now, to be in the room with the artists that have inspired me for years, to be a part of these discussions about the text is pretty incredible. Everyone brings such knowledge and skill to the table that each rehearsal feels like a master class.

What are you most excited about?
I’m just really excited to bring this puppy to life! The play has some seriously insane moments that I can’t wait to see how an audience handles. The chance to gather together and splash around in the darkest parts of humanity is super exciting, especially around Halloween!

What are you most nervous about?
I just hope I can hold my own up there. I have a recurring nightmare of losing my place. The thought of standing up there with nothing to say and egg on my face is scarier than any horror movie I can imagine.

Why, in your opinion, should people come to see the reading?
If recent events have taught me anything it’s that humanity is still struggling with some really basic principles. This play is 400 years old and yet somehow, the questions I think this play is trying to raise – specifically about the persecution of women and social mobility – are problems we have not fixed. This play dives into the extremes of these issues and we can see just how rotten the core is. I think it’s important to see where we have come from and how far we still have to go.

Ferdinand is a pretty controversial character, how do you see the character and what are two redeeming qualities you feel he possesses?
I see him for what I think he is. A cautionary tale. He is a monster in a man’s skin. It can be fun and sometimes ridiculous to examine the extremes of human darkness. Ultimately though, what makes Ferdinand compelling and I think frightening is the raw human passion that lies underneath. He is humanity at its worst impulses. I feel his only real redeeming quality is his function. He teaches us to be better than our dark drives, to strive to be better; otherwise, we are simply beasts. Also, he is a warning, a warning that monsters walk among us and they need to be held accountable.

How has it been working with BASH’d for the first time?
It’s been really inspiring. Julia is a fantastic director – so insightful, so incredibly knowledgeable, so generous. I very much look forward to rehearsal every week. The whole group is really keen and we are having great discussions. I’m not as familiar with Webster’s work as I am with Shakespeare’s and it’s fascinating to find the echoes of Shakespeare’s plays in Webster’s. And to get a sense of what was unique to Webster.

What are you most excited about?
Staged readings have an electric quality to them because we aren’t as familiar with the material as we would be if we were rehearsing a full production. So there’s so much potential to surprise each other and play with each other and make big choices that may or may not fly. I’m really excited to be in that position with these actors. And to be playing The Duchess for a couple of hours.

What are you most nervous about?
The same thing that makes me excited makes me nervous! I have to trust that my mind and heart will keep up with the play. In a situation where you don’t know what’s coming next as well as you usually would, you just have to trust and commit. It’s exciting and electric and also a bit nerve-wracking. I think that’s what we come to see though – actors living in that risky place.

Why, in your opinion, should people come to see the reading?
This is a somewhat rare opportunity to hear this really strange, passionate, dark, fantastical play – I’m really excited for the night. I think it will be a great event – theatre in an awesome bar with a bunch of people who love Jacobean plays or just love plays with werewolves and poisoned bibles in them. The Sunday before Halloween. I mean, come on.

Can you describe the Duchess’s character? What parallels, if any, do you see between the issues she faces in the play and our current society?
The Duchess is a very modern woman in the sense that she breaks from the assumed female decorum of her time. She pursues love. She proposes marriage. She rejects the control that her brothers so violently try to impose on her. She is courageous and passionate and intelligent and fierce. I think it’s impossible to read or watch anything right now without drawing parallels to our current social climate. I feel like the air is full of gasoline and matches are being struck everywhere. It’s shocking as a modern woman to realize that not as much has changed as we once thought it had. Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court was talked about a lot in rehearsal. It’s exhilarating to play a character written four hundred years ago that expresses outrage to this type of injustice and it’s also devastating to realize that so many oppressive imbalances of power still exist.

Thanks for your responses! I can’t wait until the 28th for what is sure to be a memorable and spooky evening!

The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster
A Staged Reading

Sunday, October 28
8 pm
at The Baby G (1608 Dundas St W)

Limited tickets are now available online for $15 at

A limited number of PWYC tickets will be available at the door.
But plan to arrive early, PWYC tickets won’t last long.
We encourage you to purchase ahead of time to secure your seat!

Directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus

FEATURING: Felix Beauchamp, Tristan Claxton, Bailey Green, Kevin Hammond, Michael Man, Cora Matheson, Tatyana Mitchell, Jesse Nerenberg, Andy Pogson, Shayna Virginillo, Naomi Wright

Author Tori Carlisle

Toronto Regional Editor. Tori is a passionate high school English teacher based in Toronto. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto in English, History, and Renaissance and Reformation Studies, an MA in English Literature from York University, and a Masters of Teaching from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She is a lover of all things Shakespeare and cats!

More posts by Tori Carlisle

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