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  • Eddie Hewitt

The Duchess of Malfi

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, 2nd June 2018

At the end of the matinee performance the ushers called for a quick exit so the stage hands could clean up the sticky mess on stage before the repeat spilling to come in the evening. It must have taken a lot of mops, buckets and scouring. There were several rows of protective blankets to collect and launder, too. The volume of fake blood shed and sprayed was extraordinary.

A bloody stage indeed

(photo: RSC (c) Helen Maybanks)

Now, I’ve scoured the text, and the blood lapping the edges of the stage came way too early for my liking. It started at the point where a giant bull, hanging upside down in the corner, was slit just a few inches. This could surely not have brought out so much gore. Then the seepage became a torrent when the Duchess was strangled. Ropes chafe but don’t normally don’t pierce the skin.

This was a boyhood favourite play of mine. Taught by a very annoying English teacher. A Jacobean tragedy that tugs at the heartstrings, churns you up and leaves you feeling devastated. And yet here, at the delightful Swan Theatre, I felt bemused. Made to feel as if I had just witnessed a farce. Not even a tragic farce, just a farce. Okay, a gory farce. Derived out of nastiness in the extreme, but not the kind of weighty, doom-laden tragedy that we normally get at Stratford-upon-Avon. Maybe that was Webster’s intention from the outset; to write a play where the madness and the violence is so extreme and so ridiculous at times that it loses dramatic integrity.

Delivering Webster’s fun and games and the RSC’s sensational bloodfest, the cast was excellent. Joan Iyiola was the perfect Duchess. Refreshingly mischievous as well as conventionally bold. Determined to defy her evil, misogynist brothers Ferdinand (RSC debutant Alexander Cobb) and the Cardinal of Aragon (fellow debutant Chris New). Ferdinand’s sharp suit and pristine white T-shirt were good for openers. The Cardinal’s dog collar and white gloves were nice touches too. But their vicious misogyny shone through their fine raiments. They were bad to the bone.

I'm watching you. always watching. The Duchess (Joan Iyiola) under pressure to do as she is told by not-so-loving twin brother Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb), RSC photo

The RSC programme notes refer to director Maria Aberg’s stance on masculinity and madness:

“It felt really important to look at this Jacobean tragedy full of dangerous and violent men through a contemporary feminist lens.”

There were some aggressive male dance routines to get things going. A bit of a Webster’s Britain’s Got Talent. But the extreme aggression and violence took centre, right, and left of stage throughout. The brothers told their sister what they would do to her should she ever remarry. And that’s exactly what they did. In the most horrible way imaginable. Bosola (Nicolas Tennant), a reluctant, murderous patsy, delivered several unfortunate victims to be deprived of breath, and then slaughtered a few himself. He wasn’t happy, though. Only doing what he was commanded and commissioned to.

The object of the Duchess’s affection, Antonio, was a bit of a weak link, perhaps overplaying his role as a lucky, star-struck admirer picked out by the demanding Duchess.

Bosola (Nicolas Tennant). A reluctant destroyer. RSC photo

And so to the heroine and the feminist lens. The Duchess called upon death in the end, refusing to be broken in spirit by her brothers. But she was no match physically for the two burly executioners tugging on a rope they had wrapped around her neck. This scene was reminiscent of the demise of Chipo Chung’s Dido on the same stage last year. Two defiant women, committed to love, living their lives the way they chose to and confronting death with open arms. Fighting the violent forces around them until their last breath.

An unbearable moment, but defiant to the end. RSC photo

In lighter moments there was fun with apricots, grown in horse manure. Caused a bit of an upset tummy. Then, three children laughing and skipping around the stage. Blissfully ignorant of the hatred that would later destroy two of them.

Hair was a big thing in this production. The Duchess gave us quite a range of styles. Under a headscarf, natural-style Afro wig, cornrows, angst-ridden short. She also frequently switched costumes on stage, highlighting her femininity.

An opening look. A shock of hair. An early show of strength. RSC photo

Now, we must come back to that bloody mess. Enough to turn the Duchess’s white dress red as she crawled towards her deathbed. The first in a long line of murders. Then the two youngest children, strangled off stage. Better seen than heard. Better not seen at all. Next, Cariola, the maid servant, also throttled, but determined not to be killed before she knew the reason why. There was no satisfactory reason. Just male madness. Then Julia, the Cardinal’s mistress, her life cut short on kissing a poisoned Bible. Cruel and heartless.

"I am Duchess of Malfi still"

But not for long. RSC photo

And then the daggers came out and the blood really started to flow. Antonio was slain by mistake by Bosola, who thought he was attacking the Cardinal. Shades of Hamlet and Polonius. The Cardinal was stabbed himself soon after, living just long enough to outlive his brother. Ferdinand, in his own white garments, writhed in pain and self-recrimination on the slippery floor. So many moments of madness and a play full of tragedy.

Telltale signs of all that splish splashing away across the boards

(photo: E. Hewitt)

All the while, the stage was awash. It was all a bit much. The RSC went for maximum violence, grotesque and shocking, as seems to have been their wont this year. There was also plenty of dark humour, though some of this was easy to miss. All in all, the performance was thoroughly entertaining, in a ghastly way.

Half time at the Swan. All the time in the world for the theatre

(photo: E. Hewitt)

© Eddie Hewitt 2018

RSC stage photos: (c) Helen Maybanks


Connected Cultures feature : Webster’s Dramatic World

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