Discussing design with Duchess [of Malfi] director Zinnie Harris

Part of our Citizens Women season, The Duchess [of Malfi] follows the recently widowed Duchess as she gains financial independence, prioritises her passions and refuses the authority of her brothers with horrifyng consequences.

Here, writer and director Zinnie Harris discuses how the design choices and staging help tell the Duchess' story. (This conversation includes plot spoilers!)

Kirsty Stuart as The Duchess
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

How important is the relationship between the director and the designer, from your point of view?

People think a designer goes away and designs and that’s not what happens. Tom Piper and I would spend a long time sitting with the model box.  He would send me sets of references and I would say ‘oh I like the industrialness of that or the calm of that’.  After the first draft of the designs I made some radical suggestions and the second design draft was quite different. There’s always a limit to what you can do with a space but I had wanted it quite open…the walkway, I wanted the sense that people could look up and down, and to be able to transform the space from a public place into an intimate space and then into a basement in the second half. I wanted the walkway so that conversations could be overheard and overlooked, but also so that in the second act Ferdinand could see down into the basement, into the box (where the Duchess is imprisoned). 

Do the stairs up to the walkway change between Act One and Act Two, or did I imagine that?

Yes, they are steps in the first act, and it’s a public place with windows but it’s a ladder in the second act…it’s become a covert basement space, so we wanted the sense of going into a cellar.

Fletcher Mathers and Kirsty Stuart in The Duchess [of Malfi]
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

What was the reason for using video in the Duchess’ torture scene?

In the original play there is a moment where she is shown a waxwork model and made to think it’s the dead body of her husband, so I thought what’s the modern equivalent of that?  It’s fake news, so we had the video played again and again, like brainwashing her.

Adam Best and Graham Mackay-Bruce in The Duchess [of Malfi]
Image by Tim Morozzo 

The characters have their names projected on the back wall as they enter – what’s the reason for this?

I wanted the sense of them being like a set of playing cards and it adds to the ensemble nature of the piece.  It’s called The Duchess but it’s as much about the men and the way they behave.  

What other really important functions did you want the design to serve?

I wanted the audience to understand as soon as the show started that this is not a period Jacobean play, that it’s contemporary and modern.  So an electric guitar hits out at you immediately and you’re led down a certain route with harsh lines and stark lighting to understand that world. 

Fletcher Mathers, Eleanor Kane and Kirsty Stuart in The Duchess [of Malfi]
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

This isn't design related, but can you say something about the movement piece the women do after the Duchess’ death?

There is the torture and then the execution but I absolutely wanted this not to be the women’s last word but for them to take their revenge. The musician is the ghost from the future who is there at various moments and she sings them back to life. It is not a rhythmic piece and starts slowly but becomes almost like a song women might have sung as they worked in the fields or did washing – it’s about strength and defiance.

For more behind the scenes insights, have a read of our Q&A with Lighting Designer Ben Ormerod, where he explains how lighting choices help to emphasise key moments in the story.

The Duchess [of Malfi] is a co-production with The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh.

This powerful story of family, forbidden love and fierce gender politics runs at Tramway until 21st September. Tickets can be booked online or by calling our Box Office team on 0141 429 0022.