How design was used in The Duchess [of Malfi]

Written 400 years ago by John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi has remained enduringly popular for its depiction of a woman who places her dreams and desires over society's expectations. Zinnie Harris' bold new version reflects current debates about female empowerment and is part of our Citizens Women season.

In this Q&A, we talk to Designer Tom Piper to find out more about the role of design in telling the Duchess' story and how it helps highlight important themes - such as power, control, redemption and hope.

(This conversation contains plot spoilers! )

Tom Piper's sketch of the set of The Duchess [of Malfi]

What sort of conversations did you have with the director Zinnie Harris about how she wanted the world of the play to look and feel, and what were your own thoughts and ideas about that?

We talked about films, art works, the themes of the play and how she wanted the ghosts to work. We spoke about how we might suggest Bosola’s guilt through the symbolic use of blood, how to make the play from the Duchess’ perspective and how she transcends the violence of her death. The end moment with the redemption of Bosola with the command to 'change it' was very important.

Brutalist, concrete buildings were a design influence
Image by 志免鉱業所竪坑櫓(福岡 (CC by 2.0

(CC BY 2.0)

What were the big influences on and inspirations for your design process?
Looking at eastern European concrete buildings and the spy films of the 60s which explored psychological torture. I was also influenced by the artworks of Francis Bacon, Louise Borgeois and Rachel Whitread.
To what extent is this still a Jacobean tragedy in terms of the look and feel of the space and characters?
The use of blood and the body count is certainly very Jacobean. There is also a sense of a self contained world in which only really the characters exist and we don’t need to see them in a wider social context. In that sense it is quite non naturalistic.

Each character is introduced with their name projected onto the back wall.
Design sketch by Tom Piper
The characters being introduced by their names projected on the back wall makes us aware that we're watching a piece of theatre. What were your and Zinnie's reasons for doing this?
In the first section there is an element of La Ronde (a play in which a pair of characters meet, then one is replaced by a new one then the first is replaced and so on). Each scene flows into the next and we wanted the titles to give an emphasis on which character we were focusing on in each scene. By Act 2 this device was no longer necessary.
Why does the set feel so industrial, with so much metal and fencing?
This is partly because of the references of abattoirs and the torture chambers in the second half, but it also plays on the way modern concrete buildings can seem very stylish and chic when lit in the right way or with an elegant piece of furniture. We also deliberately softened the feel of the space for the Duchess’ bedroom - her private inner sanctuary where she marries Antonio and has the babies. The metal grill suggested the choir screens of churches and also the world of a dingy back street bar. My designs are normally quite abstract, I like to create an environment in which it is possible to engage in the audience's imagination rather than being literal about space. The great thing about theatre is that we can move in location through the use of light and a few suggestive props or costumes.

The platform helps with staging
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic
Can you say something about the platform in terms of how it helps tell the story?
It allows a sense of eavesdropping and also a flow of characters within the space that keeps the story moving as one scene can begin above, whilst the previous one is being cleared from below. Although the Duchess is trying to be the mistress of her own home, in the end she is imprisoned within it. At first she hides her marriage and then her babies, then is imprisoned by Ferdinand in her basement. We never see the Duchess outside of her palace, there is only one scene, the apricots , where we felt she even had a sense of the outdoors and wanted it to feel like a picnic in an inner courtyard, open to the sky but entirely walled in.

The Duchess' costumes were carefully selected to make sure she stands out on stage
Image: Mihaela Bodlovic
Against that darker backdrop, the Duchess herself often stands out in terms of her costume (e.g. her bright red dress at the start of the show). What were the reasons for dressing the Duchess in such vibrant, modern styles at the beginning, and how does what she wear symbolise her emotional journey through the play?
Her red is a rebellion against the imposition of mourning black that the brothers would like to enforce on her to keep control. They offer her a drab grey dress as a compromise which she rejects. Her outfit when hiding the pregnancy is a bold take on a sixties pregnancy dress, fashionable and spring like, while nursing the twins she has a bright kimono. It is only when imprisoned that she is forced into drab colours. I worked closely with Zinnie to make sure the Duchess really stood out and actually changed several outfits during the tech, as they didn't make her stand out enough!

Videos are projected on to the back wall during the torture scene
Design sketch by Tom Piper.
Video makes a huge impact in the Duchess' torture scene. What was the thinking behind using this medium and what impact did you and Zinnie want to make with it?
In Webster's original, the Duchess is tricked by wax work dummies of the dead. Using a faked film seemed perfect for our 60s setting and it enabled us to build to a crescendo of psychological torture as the sound and buzzers were overlaid with the looping film of her children.
Would you be able to say something else about how the design supports some of the main themes of the play like power, control, redemption and hope?
We did explore a more dramatic transformation at the end, revealing a new room or a forest, but in the end wanted to embody the hope of the future in the simple gesture of Bosola taking the child’s hand. Sometimes it is best to let the actors carry the emotion and meaning and not force the set to tell a story. I see my work as creating a playing space for the actors in which they can tell their story. The open apertures in the set in act one gave the sense of a world of possibilities beyond, that light could flood in and illuminate dark spaces. Then in the second half we shut all the windows to echo the Duchess’ imprisonment, controlled by Ferdinand watching from above.  Her cell was a stylised cube, which the ghosts banished after their deaths, symbolically freeing themselves from the tyranny of the men and moving into a playful haunting of Ferdinand.

The ghosts of the women taunt Ferdinand
Image by Tim Morozzo

We also chatted to Zinnie Harris (writer and director) about how she wanted the world of the play to look and here - have a read of her Q&A here. We think it's interesting to see how their answers echo one another.

Plus, get to know lighting was used to emphasise key moments in our Q&A with Lighting Designer Ben Ormerod.

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.