Plays

video The Duchess of Malfi (Stage on Screen)

Stage on Screen
Type: Video

The Duchess of Malfi is a popular choice as a set text, despite (or perhaps because of) the violence and horror of its later scenes. Generally considered to be the masterpiece of Jacobean playwright John Webster, it was first produced in around 1613. It’s a macabre tragedy, based on actual events, and tends to be either loved or hated by critics – while consistently captivating audiences across the centuries.
Set in Italy in the early fifteenth century, it starts out as a love story, with the Duchess marrying beneath her class. However, her two brothers, one cool and corrupt, the other secretly violent and warped, have other ideas. With incredible plot twists along the way, the play ends as an utter tragedy, as the brothers take revenge on her, destroying themselves in the process.
Dark, complex…and feminist?
The main themes of The Duchess of Malfi include revenge and corruption. It also looks at the status of women in society - Webster’s use of a strong, virtuous woman as the central character was rare for the time.
The play was originally written for and performed by The King’s Men, the same company which Shakespeare belonged to. Indeed, this Jacobean classic makes an interesting text to study in comparison to many of Shakespeare’s works.
The language is poetic, and subtle at times, but infinitely rewarding. Its complex characters are also rewarding to watch, as the play develops towards the highly dramatic climax.
Director: Elizabeth Freestone.
Featuring: Peter Bankolé, Edmund Kingsley, Tim Treloar, Mark Hadfield, Tim Steed, Richard Bremmer, Conrad Westmaas, James Wallace, Aislín McGuckin, Harvey Virdi, Brigid Zengeni, Maxwell Hutcheon.

The Duchess of Padua

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Duchess of Padua is a tragic melodrama that centres around a young man named Guido Ferranti who has come to Padua to learn the secret of his birth. There he is told that his father's life was ruined by the current duke of Padua; Guido is convinced that he should revenge his father's life by murdering the duke. He agrees at first to undertake this mission, but later balks at the task, only for it to be carried out by his lover, Beatrice, the wife of the murdered Duke. The play ends in further bloodshed, with the double suicide of the lovers.

The Duchess of Padua, written in 1883, is Oscar Wilde's second play. Written for, but ultimately rejected by, the American actress Mary Anderson, it finally premiered anonymously at the Broadway Theatre in New York.

Edward II

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

When the courageous and impressive Edward I dies, his son, Edward II, is a disappointing successor. He prefers domestic tasks to waging wars, and he prefers men to women. However, Edward I’s death is good news for Piers Gaveston, who has been exiled and is now allowed to return to England under the young Edward’s wishes. The new King bestows extravagant favours upon Gaveston, including the protection of his life, while his sovereign duties are neglected. Not everyone is as smitten with Gaveston as the King, however, and the King’s nobles pressure Edward to banish the favourite to Ireland. It is Edward’s Queen, Isabella of France, who will only be satisfied with Gaveston’s murder.

Based on Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and set in early fourteenth century England, Marlowe’s play is a portrait of a flawed monarch, driven by his animal passions and by an overwhelming romantic obsession.

Copyright © 1997 A & C Black Publishers Limited

Electra (Sophocles)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Electra is a story of revenge, of children on their mother, and the grief and fury of a woman when her filial duties are split down the middle.

When the victorious King Agamemnon returns from Troy, carting his new mistress Cassandra in tow, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. This initial act of revenge sparks off a long held grudge, kindled in the exiled and presumed dead Orestes, twin brother of Electra.

In his introduction, J. Michael Walton writes that 'Electra has fed on her hate, absorbing humiliation almost with relish. As the play progresses, so her passion is revealed as having dimensions.' It is these dimensions, rather than the moral conundrum of matricide, which Sophocles brings to life so starkly in his version of the well-known Greek myth.

Elektra (Euripides)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Elektra is a story of revenge, of children on their mother, and the grief and fury of a woman when her filial duties are split down the middle.

When the victorious King Agamemnon returns from Troy, carting his new mistress Cassandra in tow, his wife Clytemnestra murders him. This initial act of revenge sparks off a long held grudge, kindled in the exiled and presumed dead Orestes, twin brother of Elektra.

Just like Sophocles, Euripides was inspired by Aeschylus's great tragic cycle, the Oresteia. Unlike Sophocles (whose focus was a battered and vilified victim of circumstance, fully justified in seeking revenge), Euripides paints a character with a more confused mindset, one who cannot be fully trusted, not even by her returning twin and brother-in-arms. Euripides allows no easy judgement, forcing his audience to pick over the bones of a moral dilemma, as bloody as it is tragic.

Eumenides (Play Three from The Oresteia)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Aeschylus’ The Oresteia is a trilogy of Greek tragedies concerning the murder of King Agamemnon of Argos, together with its aftermath. The name derives from the character Orestes, the son of Agamemnon, who sets out to avenge his father's murder. The three plays – Agamemnon, Choephori (Libation-Bearers) and Eumenides (The Furies) – were originally accompanied in performance by a satyr play, Proteus, now lost. The Oresteia, which won first prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BC, is the only surviving example of an ancient Greek theatre trilogy.

This translation by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton is based on the Oxford text (to which the line numbers refer). It follows a distinction in the original text between the lines spoken by the characters (which are mostly composed in iambics), and those spoken by the Chorus (which adopt a much freer lyric verse); here, the lyric passages belonging to the Chorus are identified by the use of initial capital letters for each new line. In addition, various expressions such as io, pheu, oimoi and others have been left transliterated from the original Greek, being (in the words of the translators) 'indications of grief rather than actual words'.

The first play of the trilogy, Agamemnon, details the homecoming of Agamemnon, King of Argos, from the Trojan War. Waiting at home for him is his wife, Clytemnestra, who has been planning his murder, partly as revenge for the sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia, and partly because in the ten years of Agamemnon's absence Clytemnestra has entered into an adulterous relationship with Aegisthus, Agamemnon's cousin and the sole survivor of a dispossessed branch of the family (Agamemnon's father, Atreus, killed and fed Aegisthus's brothers to Aegisthus's father, Thyestes, when he took power from him), who is determined to regain the throne he believes should rightfully belong to him.

The second play, Choephori, deals with the reunion of Agamemnon's children, Electra and Orestes, and their revenge. Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father.

In the final part, Eumenides, Orestes, Apollo, and the Erinyes go before Athena and eleven other judges chosen by her from the Athenian citizenry to decide whether Orestes' killing of Clytemnestra makes him guilty of the crime of murder.

Faust: Part One

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Goethe's Faust is a two-part retelling of the story of Faust, the learned doctor who makes a pact with the Devil to obtain magical powers, but is finally carried off to hell when the Devil comes to claim his soul.

The work occupied Goethe during the whole of his creative life: he began work on it in about 1772-5; published a first fragment of it in 1790, then the whole of Part One in 1808; saw the first performance of Part One in Brunswick in 1829; and was still making minor revisions to Part Two shortly before his death in March 1832.

The two parts of the original are full of meandering plotlines and inconsistencies. Although Faust is written in dialogue form, it appears that Goethe did not intend it to be a play at all. John Clifford, the translator of this version, describes it in his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition (published 2006) as 'a poetic autobiography and epic-dramatic confession'.

Clifford's task as translator, he writes, was to 'shorten the text, reducing it to a manageable length without compromising the richness and complexity of the journey; make abstractions vivid and fill them with life; discover a form of verse that would be faithful to Goethe's poetic spirit without reproducing his very literary and non-dramatic forms; reduce the worst of the meanderings and dead ends and discover a theatrical through-line that holds the whole journey together.'

The resulting version aims to be true to the spirit of Goethe's work, while also reflecting Clifford's own creative and personal life, including his identity as a transgendered person (he subsequently changed his name to Jo Clifford), and the traumatic loss to cancer of his lifelong partner, Sue Innes, in the course of working on this translation. 'While I hope the result is true to the spirit of Goethe's work,' he writes in his introduction, 'it is also most intimately autobiographical'.

This version was first performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on 28 February 2006 (Part One) and on 1 March 2006 (Part Two). The production was directed by Mark Thomson and designed by Francis O'Connor.

Faust: Part Two

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Goethe's Faust is a two-part retelling of the story of Faust, the learned doctor who makes a pact with the Devil to obtain magical powers, but is finally carried off to hell when the Devil comes to claim his soul.

The work occupied Goethe during the whole of his creative life: he began work on it in about 1772-5; published a first fragment of it in 1790, then the whole of Part One in 1808; saw the first performance of Part One in Brunswick in 1829; and was still making minor revisions to Part Two shortly before his death in March 1832.

The two parts of the original are full of meandering plotlines and inconsistencies. Although Faust is written in dialogue form, it appears that Goethe did not intend it to be a play at all. John Clifford, the translator of this version, describes it in his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition (published 2006) as 'a poetic autobiography and epic-dramatic confession'.

Clifford's task as translator, he writes, was to 'shorten the text, reducing it to a manageable length without compromising the richness and complexity of the journey; make abstractions vivid and fill them with life; discover a form of verse that would be faithful to Goethe's poetic spirit without reproducing his very literary and non-dramatic forms; reduce the worst of the meanderings and dead ends and discover a theatrical through-line that holds the whole journey together.'

The resulting version aims to be true to the spirit of Goethe's work, while also reflecting Clifford's own creative and personal life, including his identity as a transgendered person (he subsequently changed his name to Jo Clifford), and the traumatic loss to cancer of his lifelong partner, Sue Innes, in the course of working on this translation. 'While I hope the result is true to the spirit of Goethe's work,' he writes in his introduction, 'it is also most intimately autobiographical'.

This version was first performed at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, on 28 February 2006 (Part One) and on 1 March 2006 (Part Two). The production was directed by Mark Thomson and designed by Francis O'Connor.

A Florentine Tragedy

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A Florentine Tragedy is a tragedy in blank-verse set in the sixteenth century. It tells the story of the illicit love between a burgher's wife, Bianca, and the young heir to the throne of Florence, Guido. Guido has come to the house of the burgher Simone to claim Bianca for his own. Encouraged by her, Guido promises a fortune to Simone in exchange for her hand. Simone, though greedy for the money, is not to be swayed so easily, and a fight to the death ensues.

Written in 1894, A Florentine Tragedy exists only as a fragment, often accompanied for the purposes of presentation by an opening scene commissioned from the Irish poet Thomas Sturge Moore by Robert Ross, Wilde's literary executor. Only Oscar Wilde's work is presented here.

Fury

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Phoebe Eclair-Powell's play Fury is a modern-day version of the Medea story, exploring issues around motherhood and class and focussing on the predicament of a young single mum in London. It was the winner of the Soho Theatre Young Writer's Award, and was first performed at Soho Theatre, London, on 5 July 2016 in a co-production by Soho Theatre and Damsel Productions.

The play's action is free-flowing, partly narrated and constantly commented on by a three-strong Chorus comprising Woman, Man and Fury (who also play additional roles in the action). Sam is struggling as a single parent in south-east London with her two young sons since Rob left her. Tom, a master's student who plays his music too loudly, rents the flat above, the one Sam cleans. If they can come to 'an arrangement', he won't report her to Social Services.

In a 'Note on the Play' in the published script, Eclair-Powell states that 'The Chorus act like every Greek chorus should – they ask us to bear witness. But this Chorus also manipulates our understanding of the story unravelling before us. They shape our idea of Sam and our sense of judgement. They are a three-headed hydra – with slight differences in allegiance. Fury is more on Sam’s side, Man is on the fence – sometimes playful, sometimes vengeful – and Woman is the least sympathetic – perhaps she has seen this all before and she’s tired of it. When the Chorus speak they take over – they infiltrate the stage and enhance the theatrical journey. They should be supported by music and underscore – they take us out of naturalism and into something far more heightened.'

The Soho Theatre production was directed by Hannah Hauer-King and designed by Anna Reid, with Sarah Ridgeway as Sam, Alex Austin as Tom, Naana Agyei-Ampadu as Woman, Daniel Kendrick as Man and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as Fury.

A tragedy is a serious play with an unhappy ending. The word is often said to mean ‘goatsong’ (Greek: tragos, goat; ode, song), although modern etymologists have disputed this. It was Aristotle who provided the classic definition of tragedy, stating (in his Poetics) that tragedy should move one “by pity and terror” at the fall of a great person: the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.

The genre developed in ancient Greece, where tragedies were expected to follow a fairly strict form. Tragic protagonists were drawn only from deities, royalty, and the upper classes, and their inevitable suffering and downfall was brought about by a combination of fate and their own hubris. The three great authors of classical tragedy were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, all of whom wrote in the 5th century BC. The rules of classical tragedy were rediscovered at the Renaissance, as were many of the Greek and Roman texts. The gory tragedies of the Roman Seneca proved particularly influential on the playwrights of the time.

Typically, the tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras combined violent and sensational action with acute psychological insight and intense poetry. The great tragedies of Shakespeare are usually considered the pinnacle of world drama. In the 17th century the Frenchmen Corneille and Racine led a return to the stricter Greek forms of tragedy. Thereafter the tradition of serious tragic writing declined, being largely displaced by sentiment and melodrama.

It did not revive until the late 19th century, when such writers as Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov managed to combine the sombre themes and moral seriousness of tragedy with a realistic depiction of contemporary life. Perhaps the only modern writer to attempt the classic tragic form was the US dramatist Eugene O’Neill.

from Jonathan Law ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011)