Saturday, 17 March 2018

Theatre review: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi won't let any man decide who she can or can't marry; as played by Joan Iyiola at the RSC, this seems to include her prospective husband, who doesn't entirely get a say in her decision to pursue their dangerous love affair. In Maria Aberg's interpretation of John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi it's this strong will and independence, rather than the social inequality of the match, that is her downfall. The widowed Duchess' brothers, the unhinged Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) and lecherous Cardinal (Chris New) advise her against remarrying, largely because they think if she dies without heirs they might inherit her wealth. The Duchess, though, has other ideas, but knowing a marriage between herself and her steward Antonio (Paul Woodson) will cause a scandal she marries him in secret.

It's a secret they manage to keep through a few years and three children, but inevitably the gossip eventually catches up with them. Ferdinand in particular is driven into a fury by the discovery, and the young family attempt to flee his murderous rage.

This being John Webster there's little chance of anyone getting away without a grisly demise, and Aberg's production, the first in a Stratford season entirely directed by women, puts the blame on a macho culture. The Duchess, her lady-in-waiting Cariola (Amanda Hadingue) and the Cardinal's mistress Julia (Aretha Ayeh) are the only adult women in an overtly masculine world that Naomi Dawson has designed to look like a grubby gym. The set is dominated by the rotting carcass of a bull with its head, hooves and genitals cut off, which the Duchess drags onto the stage at the start, and which is hung up on a hook for the rest of the performance.

A chorus of men variously working out, physically threatening or providing an ominous background chanting makes up the rest of the cast, and they spend much of their time creeping out of nooks and crannies in the set, never letting the heroine's actions go unobserved or unpunished. It's a world where sexual violence against women is matter-of-fact and Cobb's Ferdinand cuts an interesting figure in it: His delusion that he's a werewolf usually comes out of nowhere as the result of guilt for the things he set in motion, but here he's teetering on the edge of a breakdown from the start. The idea that he's incestuously attracted to his twin sister isn't foregrounded so much as a general sense of impotent rage and confusion over how he fits into this world.

Aberg's production makes heavy cuts to the text, perhaps too heavy as this was one of those rare instance where I felt the show needed to be a bit longer; the first half in particular feels rushed and the relationship between the Duchess and Antonio doesn't make much impact - Iyiola's Duchess is fierce and magnetic, and Woodson's Antonio seems an oddly uncharismatic person for her to risk everything for.

After the interval, as bucketfuls of blood pour onto the stage the production improves. The RSC has gone after some of that sweet, sweet Titus Andronicus publicity with articles about how much gore the show needs, and after looking distractingly like a giant roast chicken that's gone mouldy, the bull carcass comes into its own as Ferdinand stabs it and it floods the stage with blood (inevitable echoes of Carmen Disruption.) In keeping with Aberg's highlighting of men's violence towards women, this means that the women's deaths, actually kept quite clinical by Webster, are displayed for what they are, with the Duchess' bloody body staying on stage long after her death.

Nicolas Tennant is an actor who always brings a likeability to the stage, which gives real ambiguity to his Bosola, fixer and hit-man for the brothers. He criticises and eventually turns against his employers, but also enjoys one of the play's recurring examples of male privilege, of feeling able to claim no responsibly for his own actions. The high-concept aspects, occasionally tipping into oddity, of Aberg's production mean it doesn't always embrace Webster's tendency towards the ridiculous: Death By Poisoned Bible and Oops I Was Trying To Protect You But Wasn't Paying Attention So I Stabbed You To Death Instead in particular miss out on their sense of black comedy, with the show coming close to accidental comedy at times instead. But this production centres on a powerful Duchess in Iyiola and an unusually indefinable Ferdinand in Cobb, succeeds in creating a genuinely creepy atmosphere in places, and the literal bloodbath of its visuals won't be easy to forget in a hurry.

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is booking in repertory until the 3rd of August at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

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