Bloody revenge and stage violence are par for the course in Jacobean tragedies, but a new version of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi intends to balance the macabre with a nuanced exploration of gender.
The play, in which the marriage of the Duchess to someone beneath her social class leads to her brothers exacting revenge, has been reinterpreted as a ‘transgender fable’, with a new title, Cover Her Face, and third gender performer La JohnJoseph playing the lead.
The adaptation, to be staged this month at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, moves the play from the court of Amalfi some 500 years ago to London’s east end at the tail end of the 1950s.
“We’re setting it in this gay gangster socialite criminal underworld,” explains La JohnJoseph, a performance artist and writer who divides his time between East London and Berlin.
“We’re exploring the same power dynamics but with a new aesthetic. It’s all fifties – the music, the costumes, everything. We’ve been studying dialects and accents; half the cast will be speaking with Cockney accents, which are very different from contemporary ones, and the rest will have this Mayfair-type accent. We’re hoping to dislocate people’s understanding of the play when they come and see it like this.”
Jacobean drama has always lent itself to gender discourse. Women, in the 17th century, were not permitted to act on stage, so plays were written with men playing female characters in mind.
Taking its lead from this, La JohnJoseph will be the only non-male member of the cast. “I’m in the middle, in that shimmering grey area,” he quips. “There are no straight female roles at all, so all of the interactions have become very queered.
“There are some incestuous undertones, bisexual undertones and transgender ones – it’s quite a free for all and I think it’s very timely actually that we’re doing the piece like this.”
La JohnJoseph cites Australian supermodel Andrej Pejic as an example of how transgender people are coming to the forefront of public consciousness. “People are aware not only of the right of transsexual people who change their gender but also that the gender spectrum is wider than previously acknowledged,” he says.
In the original play, the Duchess suffers for marrying someone from the lower classes. In Cover Her Face (the new title is from a line in the play) the emphasis is on the Duchess trying to live as a woman against the wishes of her conservative brothers.
“Gender is a cornerstone of how we understand ourselves and in this play everyone is trying to shut the Duchess up and lock her away,” La JohnJoseph says.
“I’ve most definitely channelled my experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, of being a gender non-conformist into this role.”
Cover Her Face is at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, 42 Pollard Street, E2 6NB from 10-15 February.