The Hidden Room Theatre’s “Duchess of Malfi” Is A Time Machine To Ask Vital Questions For Today’s Audiences Using A Classic Text

Just in time for Halloween, Hidden Room Theatre is presenting one of the most infamously bloody revenge tragedies ever put on the stage — John Webster’s "The Duchess of Malfi," which first premiered in the early 1600s.

A vicious tragedy filled with complex characters, “The Duchess of Malfi” explores issues still haunting us to this day, ranging from class conflict to corruption and abuse of power.

After playing in the York Rite Masonic Hall Sept. 27-Oct. 20, Hidden Room’s production will make its way to London’s Globe Theatre in June 2020. We spoke with the company’s artistic director, Beth Burns, as well as with the Globe’s Head of Research and Education, Farah Karim, to learn more about this timely tale.

American-Statesman: Beth, what's the inspiration for staging “The Duchess of Malfi” this season? How does it speak to the world around us right now?

Beth Burns: “The Duchess of Malfi” is the ideal show for me right now on several different levels. At the simplest, it’s exciting, creepy, macabre fun as we slip into Halloween season. Practically for production, it’s probably the most beloved of all the non-Shakespearean early modern plays, and certainly the most revered of revenge tragedies. But on its highest level, Webster is speaking to dignity and perseverance, even when the world around us is at its most oppressive. How do we live, love, and even die well when bad faith actors are in charge? “The Duchess of Malfi” exists in this twisted world filled with the deepest corrosive corruption and classic horror, but love still finds a way. Abuse of power and selfishness may wear us down, but choosing decency and kindness lives on beyond ourselves. That’s a message that a lot of us can use right now.

One of the ways that Hidden Theatre keeps classic texts fresh is, ironically, through revisiting history, and exploring historical acting techniques. What drives you to play with these styles, and how does using Renaissance-style gesture acting fit with “The Duchess of Malfi”?

Making time machines is what I live for! Our work with scholars is so important to me, and it’s thrilling to me that there is still so much to uncover about the ways we used to tell our stories, and therefore learn more about who we were, and who we are.

When we’re looking at Renaissance gesture work, we’re putting a lost tool back into use — figuring out how our ancestor actors employed a technique, and thereby seeing what was effective and indeed just different. Whenever we are able to conjure back these old playing practices from the dead, it links us back to who we were, what we enjoyed, and most importantly, how we shared the stories that were most important to us. And that link to our past is bolstering. We’re not alone, we’ve never been alone, and our problems then will continue to be our problems in the future. Let’s see if we can get a leg up by learning from their lessons.

As for “The Duchess of Malfi,” incorporating Renaissance Gesture Technique — which we believe would have been fairly naturalistic — is helping ground what could otherwise be a more melodramatic play. It’s rooting us in ways we didn’t expect, and it’s certainly enriching the experience for me.

After the run in Austin, The Duchess of Malfi will play at the Globe Theatre. How did this association begin?

I’ve been an admirer of the Globe’s scholar-based work as soon as they got on my radar — it’s been about 20 years now. I felt like I had so much to learn as a practitioner from how they were employing academia to fill in the blanks about Shakespeare, and playing the text as it was written rather than fighting it, in an attempt (often failed) to make it more “relatable" as many theaters do. I think the notion that audiences were somehow so different then, or that the plays themselves are somehow inscrutable just makes no sense.

I started going to Early Modern Theatre conferences to learn more about putting academic discoveries into theatrical practice when I met (all-time hero, now dear friend) Dr. Farah Karim. Karim is not only a world-class scholar, but also a fellow Texan, and she and I hit it off right away. We’ve done the best we can to support her work by acting as a laboratory for her whenever we can, testing out the practicalities of how any new ideas she has on early modern theatre practices might have played out on stage. So it’s a pretty exciting and joy-filled collaboration, and I could gladly live out my life doing work like this.

It’s through our continued collaboration that the Hidden Room got on the Globe’s radar. We were invited to perform our "Der Bestrafte Brudermord" at the Globe in 2015, and we couldn’t be happier to return with "Duchess of Malfi." What a thrill. Ultimately, to continue that academic-based theatre work in our own way here in Austin, with the support of the Globe and their scholar/practitioners is my greatest pride.

Farah, what can you tell us about your research so far into the Renaissance-style gesture acting technique that Hidden Theatre will be using in this production?

Farah Karim: When I started researching it, I was already skeptical about a lot of the myths that were circulating among scholars about how actors gestured on the Renaissance stage. So I examined not only acting and behavior manuals, but also the plays themselves; pictorial evidence such as portraits and drawings from the period to get a sense of what the local gestures were of the age. I discovered that actors were not, as it had been presumed, gesturing in an over-the-top declamatory style, that they weren't gesturing only symbolically, but rather, their gestures reflected the emotions of the character. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, gesture is underpinned by emotion, and emotion is also key to acting theory. The gestures then would appear more naturalistic than stylized. This would be much more natural then for a modern actor to play.

How did a Texan find herself as the Head of Research and Education at the Globe Theatre?

I came to attend graduate school in England and fell in love with it, so I stayed. When I was in grad school, around 1995, I went to the construction site of the Globe. I felt really inspired not just by the project itself, but the endeavor. It took the American frontier mentality of Sam Wanamaker to get the Globe built and I thought perhaps that same kind of mentality (Texan frontier mentality is, as you know, a bit scrappier than the rest) should help steer its academic wing once it is built. At that time, it felt like a pipe dream, but 15 years later, I am still here and able to work on amazing projects like the Hidden Room's “Malfi” and bring more Texas to the Globe.

Finally, Beth, Hidden Theatre is the 2019 Austin Ambassadors for Theatre. What does that mean, and how will it play into the events surrounding this production?

We were floored to become Austin’s Cultural Ambassadors this year, and we’re running with it! First we continue to travel to schools all over Austin and the surrounding areas with our Hidden (class)Room project, providing workshops on stronger communication, reading comprehension, self-confidence, and a deeper enjoyment of theatre and Shakespeare in particular, 100 percent free of charge to any teacher or classroom who wants it.

We’re following up by doing a bit of out-of-state traveling to bring our brand of Austin theater to parts elsewhere. We’re partnering up with a few local Austin businesses to help us get overseas and to spread the word about our weird, creative, friendly community here, and how that shows itself in our arts and business. We’re over the moon to share Austin across the country, and all the way out to the UK.