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Set play: The Duchess of Malfi

It was her audiences' enthusiastic response to last year's Macbeth that led Joanna Read to choose The Duchess of Malfi as her spring production.

She thinks of it as a complementary play, similarly troubling and dark, portraying a corrupt society in which power malignly affects people's lives.

But for her, a special attraction is the uniquely feminist perspective John Webster's play provides on those themes.

Read sees the Duchess as a woman who resists the oppressive hierarchical and patriarchal world in which she is caught up. `She is very individual and human, good but not innocent, and she makes choices how to live her life, to defy the tyranny of her brothers.' Read stresses that those choices are made from the best of motives - love, companionship and equality, `even though she never articulates them, but acts from her instinct of what seems right'.

The Salisbury production will be played in Jacobean costume, a decision that Read says is `simply necessary in a world of swords, cardinals and dukes'. But the perception of a woman making choices leads Read to see The Duchess of Malfi as a very modern play. `It is too glib to seek precise modern equivalents, but the similarities are there.' In particular, she singles out Webster's depiction of competing moral codes as finding their echo in today's pluralistic world.

Webster's nightmare imagination presents every director with problems of staging. Just how do you present the madmen in ways that disturb the audience rather than make them laugh? Read perceives a similar difficulty with the waxworks of the Duchess's dead husband and children. `They must be horrific, and seen as torment not just a clever dumb show.' Her answer is to bring together modern and Jacobean ideas of the grotesque, including Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs.

Read is sceptical of the notion of a tragic flaw: `There's no dignified male tragic hero in this play.' She sees the tragedy in the Duchess's common humanity. `She's like the rest of us, capable of heroism but not knowing until put to the test. What comes over in this play is a strong sense of injustice. But that is empowering - it makes the audience think and question.'

The Duchess of Malfi
Salisbury Playhouse, March 14 to April 6
Tickets: 01722 320333.

Places are available on Joanna Read's masterclass workshop, Dealing with the Duchess, March 26, 1.30-3pm. Suitable for GCSEA-levelperforming arts students. Details of this and other workshops: 01722 422182nbsp;nbsp;nbsp;

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