By Ailsa Piper and Hugh Colman (after Webster)
Directed by Ailsa Piper
With Verity Charlton, Kate Cole, Dion Mills, Simon Wood, Nick Coughlan & Felix Nobis
GREEN ROOM AWARDS Nomination Best Direction: Ailsa Piper, Nomination Best Set Design: Hugh Colman
Set Design by Hugh Colman
Lighting by Rachel Burke
Hellbent (Nov 15 – Dec 16, 2006) Martin Ball, The Age 27/11/2006
While the main stage companies are lightening up for Christmas with panto and revue shows, Red Stitch is cranking up the body count with Hellbent, a terrific adaptation of John Webster’s brutal revenge tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi.
As in Kate Cherry’s production of The Duchess for the Melbourne Theatre Company five years ago, the cast is streamlined: Websters 16 characters are pared back to a neatly balanced ensemble of six. The courtiers and madmen are gone, and the characters of Julia and Cariola are conflated.
But for Hellbent, the creative team of Hugh Colman and Ailsa Piper make a more fundamental change, re-casting the three siblings at the centre of the play as types: the Duchess of Malfi becomes simply The Lady; Ferdinand is The Judge; while the Cardinal retains his simple title. Likewise, the specifics of time and location are removed, a point emphasised in the title change.
The effect is to allow a more free association of the themes of social and political corruption and focus even more intensely on the moral questions centred on the character of Bosola and the inner conflicts of The Lady’s two brothers.
It works perfectly, not just because of the care and thought in the script adaptation, but in the intelligence of the direction and design and the sustained quality of the acting throughout.
Kate Cole plays The Lady in a beautifully paced performance. She begins all insouciance and gaiety and builds to a bravura expression of grief in the face of her impending execution.
Dion Mills is The Judge who uses words as a butcher does knives. There is a grace and elegance in his delivery of Webster’s 400-year-old blank verse, whether he is cursing the whole world or maniacally promising to drive six snails to Moscow. Director Ailsa Piper brings out The Judge’s hidden secret that he loves his sister, and that his fury at her marriage is grounded not in greed but in jealousy.
Simon Wood brings a sense of wounded pride to Bosola, the spy whose desire is to appear a true servant, than an honest man. It is Bosolas misplaced sense of morality that finds the most echoes in our modern world, where loyalty to cause or nation can tragically supersede a more proper sense of humanity.
Such correlations are subtly suggested by Colman’s set. Centre stage is a raised dias whose sides are faced with a wire grill, suggestive of a prison cage beneath. Backstage is reached via a narrow portal, through which Bosola grimly carries his succession of victims; the very gates of hell or the doors to any number of contemporary prisons around the world. Hellbent promises to be yet another hit for this remarkable company.