The Duchess of Malfi
The Swan Theatre
In The Duchess of Malfi Webster takes the popular Elizabethan and Jacobean genre, Revenge Tragedy, just about as far as it can go, with the result that after Webster there are some pale imitations of the genre, but it soon goes out of fashion. The play is a kind of generic and non-specific political warning, although there are some significant elements such as the too-powerful ruler, the church, the victimisation of women and the dangers of the time-serving self-interested.
In her decision to use modern dress Maria Aberg invites the audience to think about whether any of this has any relevance to our modern world. Of course it does. And she invites us to be horrified by the consequences of being governed by each of these things and by revenge. By her casting decisions she adds racism to the mix.
I have yet to see a production of Maria Aberg’s where I saw what I expected. This is no exception. The production opens with a woman (presumably the Duchess (Joan Iyiola)) laboriously dragging the corpse of an enormous animal – I thought a bull – diagonally across the stage when it is eventually hung up. Pretty soon violence, eroticism and masculinity are depicted in a boxer dance, and a heavy metal thugs dance. The Jacobean obsessions with sex and death soon become clear with the Duchess’s obsessive but forbidden relationship with Antonio (Paul Woodson) and the repressed incestuous and sexual attractions of Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) set up the ensuing plot nicely, particularly when he castrates the hanging bull and blood rushes from its genitals. Gross. I have seen many attempts to provide motivation for the villain Bosola (Nicholas Tennant), but here he is motiveless and blustering, his shouting in the early scenes simply adding to the audience’s frustration and disgust.
The executioners are big sexy boys supporting Bosola who becomes the executioner, having been the tombmaker. It would be hard for the audience not to have some modern parallels in mind and only those incapable of thinking in metaphorical terms could avoid the warnings of horror.
Blood soon begins to seep across the stage and towards the end the mad people are in white, contrasting with the thugs in black but all trying to negotiate their way across the increasingly bloody and slippery stage. The whole set becomes a metaphorical prison of death. But Webster does allow a glimpse of an alternative world in the minor characters Delio (Greg Barnett) and Cariola (Amanda Hadingue) who offer an alternative world of moral normality.
The play and production are gloomy (with dark lighting) and inevitably disastrous and I thought Aberg did a tremendous job in presenting so little for us to empathise with. All except Delio and Cariola are morally flawed and even Cariola succumbs to trying to save herself by lying at the end. But I did tire of it when the last ten or fifteen minutes simply reiterated what had gone before. Until then, however, my attention was fully held and my brain was active.
This is not a play for the squeamish and it certainly isn’t a producton for them. But I think there is much to admire in it.
Where better to return to after seeing it than the welcoming comfort of Moss Cottage where you will have a warm welcome and no dead animals or pools of blood?