“Webster was much possessed by death and saw the skull beneath the skin” says T. S. Eliot. Wasn’t he just? But maybe not quite as much as Maria Aberg, whose visceral and highly stylised Duchess of Malfi opened last night at the Swan Theatre. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a bloody stage in 52 years of theatregoing. If you sit in the front row you will be issued with regulation grey blankets to cover yourselves when you return from the interval. The lady seated next to me told me that she’d heard that on its first performance, blood spurts reached as far as Row H. Fortunately I can advise that the gore has been sufficiently turned down so that it no longer has such a far-reaching trajectory.
There’s not a lot of plot. The Duchess (young, widowed) has been forbidden to take on a second husband by her villainous brothers The Cardinal (not a Mafia nickname even though we are set in Italy) and her twin Ferdinand, who employs Bosola, a knavish and complicitous gentleman, to spy on her. The Duchess knows her own mind and secretly weds Antonio, her steward, with whom she has three children. When the Cardinal and Ferdinand eventually twig that she has gone against their wishes, they have her murdered. And her children. And her husband is killed. And the spy. And themselves. And anyone else within a hundred kilometres of Malfi.
I jest. If you haven’t seen it before, The Duchess of Malfi is a superbly exciting and suspenseful tragedy in the Jacobean tradition, first performed around 1613, written by John Webster from source material by William Painter (his “Palace of Pleasure” from 1567) and loosely based on the true story of Giovanna d’Aragona, Duchess of Amalfi, who died in 1511. The Duchess is a feisty, independent, free-thinking spirit, a bright spark of warmth attacked by the cold rays of her enemies from all angles. Diamonds are of most value, they say, that have pass’d through most jewellers’ hands, she avers; and like diamonds, the Duchess is one tough cookie. Even when there is no hope of her survival she remains dignified and defiant to the end – I am Duchess of Malfi still is her simple self-proclamation that no one can take away from her. The Cardinal, Ferdinand and Bosola, however, show exactly the opposite traits; controlling, manipulative, double-crossing and, in the case of Ferdinand, ultimately weak-willed. The evil characters are all men; the women are all good.
I think that’s why the production so strongly centres on the struggle between masculine cruelty and feminine virtue. There is a chorus of officers, gentlemen and other assorted guys who weave in and out of the production; gym bunnies working out and pumping iron, or a rabble of enemies to the Duchess, or a group of madmen whose only purpose is to distress and derange her. It’s as though they arrive on stage, perform a set piece, and then disperse.
It’s very unsubtle; but then again, is it a subtle play? Cuts from the original text have certainly made it less subtle, downgrading the influence of Antonio, and removing insights into the motivation of the characters. For me, the regular appearance of the brutal male chorus doesn’t grow organically from everything else we see on stage; indeed, in a rather excellent put-down, Mrs Chrisparkle thought of them as the RSC Haka, limbering up for the next scene. After all, it isn’t as though the portrayals of the Cardinal, Ferdinand, or Antonio are excessively masculine. But there is a balance between the forces of good and evil in this play, and Maria Aberg’s vision seems to me to address the evil too strongly and not concentrate enough on the good. In its attempts to prove certain theoretical points about the nature of masculine cruelty, the actual truth of the play has got lost in places. Rather than illuminating the text, I felt it obscured it at times.
There are articles in the programme about how the music was written trying to explore masculine and feminine rhythms, and how Naomi Dawson’s set was created from ideas of masculine environments – a gym, a sports stadium and an abattoir. I’m not trying to be obtuse, but can’t women use these places too? At the time it wasn’t clear to me that the design was in part meant to reflect an abattoir setting, but in retrospect it makes so much sense. My copy of the play has as its opening scene a conversation between Antonio and Delio, explaining that Antonio has been in France, and setting the character up as the common thread that links the whole play. In something of a surprise change, the opening scene in this production shows the Duchess single-handedly dragging an oversized animal carcass across the stage; slowly, laboriously, exhaustedly. It’s then plonked upstage left, until the Duchess next appears, when she trusses up its legs and suspends them in the air from a chain.
And then, for the rest of the play, no one mentions the carcass. It’s like the elephant in the room – although apparently it’s meant to be a bull, but actually, it looks much more like an oversized rubber chicken. Now we know what caused the KFC shortage. I tried to give it the benefit of the doubt and wondered what it might represent, symbolically. The Duchess’s own private burden, perhaps? Her vulnerability? Now I understand the abattoir setting, I suppose it presages her slaughter (although not her being sliced up and served on dinner tables, that’s much more Titus Andronicus.) After the interval, Ferdinand comes on and sticks his dagger into the carcass’s belly. And it starts to bleed. And it doesn’t stop. Which is where I refer you to my first paragraph, gentle reader.
As the actors squelch around on stage, variously murdering each other, the blood just seeps everywhere. Not just the floor but all over the costumes, on their faces, in their hair; I can only assume that the water pressure throughout Stratford drops after the show comes down as about 20 actors all huddle under the dressing room showers. Ferdinand and the Cardinal writhe on the floor together in an exhibition of what I can only describe as Blood Wrestling. Pity the Wardrobe Department; I hope they have lots of one-pound coins for the laundrette.
So gruesome is the final twenty minutes or so that the audience starts to laugh nervously, almost hysterically, at a few choice moments that you wouldn’t think of as funny – I guess that’s just a natural, human release of the tension. One poor man in the front row buried his head in his regulation blanket so firmly and refused to look at the stage for about 45 minutes, until his friend told him it was safe to come out again. Oh, I forgot to mention the first act contains a superb performance by Aretha Ayeh of I Put a Spell on you, written by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins – approximately 343 years after the first performance of The Duchess of Malfi.
Nevertheless, despite the heavy-handed symbolism, the savage cuts to the text, the anachronistic add-ons and the excessive blood, it’s still a strong and powerful production. There are some striking mental images that will stick with you for ages – whether or not you want them to. Orlando Gough’s incidental music resounds with tension and fear, immaculately played by the five musicians up in the sky, and Francis Gush’s superb counter tenor performance unsettles with its eeriness accompanying the madmen scene. The Duchess’s sophisticated dresses, Antonio’s classic clerical grey, Ferdinand’s lightweight pink suit and white shirt combination and the menacing black terrorist outfits of the mob are all perfect for the roles.
Joan Iyiola is a magnificent Duchess, entertainingly conveying her playful aspect, strong in her dignity, and heart-rending in her tragedy. I also enjoyed Alexander Cobb’s jittery Ferdinand; villainous through and through, but thoroughly convincing as the conspirator who denies ever having had anything to do with the plots, and very discomfiting in his descent into madness. Paul Woodson is a splendidly clean-cut Antonio, his gentle Geordie accent serving to distance himself further from the murkiness of the Calabrian court. Amanda Hadingue gives great support as Cariola, and there is decent villainy from Chris New as the Cardinal. I wasn’t quite so comfortable with Nicolas Tennant’s performance in the multi-faceted role of Bosola; to my ear he garbled quite a few of his lines and I didn’t really get a feel of quite how sinned against or sinning he was, although he does snatch the horoscope from Antonio’s back pocket rather than having Antonio accidentally drop it, as in Webster’s original, which is clearly the act of a bounder.
In the final analysis, this production is all about the visuals; Grand Guignol goes Jacobean. A feast for the senses in many respects; but you may find you need spiritual indigestion tablets to get over it. Love it or hate it, you can’t forget it. Worth going just to see how squeamish you are! It’s on in repertory until 3rd August.
Production photos by Helen Maybanks