The University of Lethbridge’s production of Shakespearian era drama, The Duchess of Malfi is not for the faint of heart. The 1613 John Webster penned drama runs March 21-25 in the University Theatre.
“It’s a mix of Game of Thrones and the Matrix,” described third year drama student Austin Halarewich, who plays Antonio, the lover of the widowed duchess, played by Madeline Smith.
“It’s like the Game of Thrones because it is so gritty and dark, and it is like the Matrix because of the costumes and the soundscape which is very eerie and doesn’t fit into any specific time period and has a tribal feel. It isn’t designed for a specific time period,” Halarewich observed, adding he loves period pieces, though Chambers set this play in an indeterminate time.
The play, though written in 1613, has been placed in an alternate reality according to director Ron Chambers.
“But he wrote it so it takes place in the 1500s. I also edited it down to about two hours from three hours by taking out things that people would just not get,” Chambers said, adding the cast includes 14 student actors, two children and a baby which isn’t real, who play the Duchess’ s doomed children.
The story begins with the recently widowed Duchess falling in love with her butler Antonio. Her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, hungry for power and fortune, issue a decree that she must never marry. As she and Antonio plot to elope and flee her brothers’ treacherous claws, they are quickly deceived by Ferdinand’s spy, and their plans are interrupted by the brothers. As the plot descends into chaos, and Ferdinand and the Cardinal descend into lunacy, the Duchess and Antonio remain resolute despite the uncertainty of their fates.
“He’s (Antonio) her butler, but he’s content where he is. He’s not interested in power, but the more he falls in love with her, the more he becomes dependent on her and enjoys the life. They have to conceal their love for each other from her brothers,” Halarewich said.
“I love period pieces. It’s a Shakespearean era play, ” he said, adding it also explores timeless themes like forbidden love.
“The play is very dark, so people will really appreciate those lighthearted moments when they happen,” he continued.
Second year drama student Madeline Smith , who plays the Duchess, never expected to be cast in the play, let alone as the leads.
“She doesn’t take crap from anybody, not even her brothers,” she said.
“I decided to audition for the experience, I didn’t expect to get in. But when I got the callback, I cried. I’ve never played royalty in anything. So it’s a privilege,” Smith said.
“Ron is an excellent director. Everything is such a learning experience,” she said.
She is enjoying playing the headstrong Duchess, who would have been an anomaly for the time.
“She’s a young widow. Her husband dies and her brothers tell her she can’t get married, she said adding there are consequences to her intransigence as her three children are “slaughtered.”
“And spoiler, she dies too,” Smith said.
She has enjoyed playing royalty.
“The most fun has been exploring the different psychological aspects of the characters,” she said.
“I hope audiences will come away with a different perception of the theatre and how relevant and vital it can be,” she said.
Director Ron Chambers doesn’t think about what the audience will take away from the play.
“There’s this canon — a big white book of plays people are supposed to have read. This is one of them. So when I choose a play, I choose a play that will give the students the best learning experience,[ Chambers said.
“ It’s a really well written play. It requires a lot from the actors,” he said.
“John Webster was a contemporary of Shakespeare, so he would have probably seen this play,” he said, adding it was based on a true story that happened in the early 1500s.
“I hope audiences will be moved by it,” he said.
Tickets for The Duchess of Malfi are available at the U of L Box Office, Monday – Friday (12:30 pm – 3:30 pm) or by calling (403) 329-2616. Tickets are also available online: ulethbridge.ca/tickets. Ticket prices are $18 regular, $13 senior/alumni, $12 students.