Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle. She died young.
“A world where masculinity has turned toxic” is the RSC’s description of their Malfi in the summer season Swan Theatre gore-fest: John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. Focusing on Webster’s fiercely defiant, witty, beautiful and magnetic Duchess, Maria Aberg’s new production is fresh, feminist, and female.
Malfi’s court is a literal court: a run-down gymnasium with the distinctive markings of a basketball court mapped out on the floor. Flood lights domineer at the back of the thrust stage and a couple of rows on uncomfortable-looking stadium seats sit beneath. The action begins with the Duchess lugging the carcass of a bull (a metaphor – though it is unclear of what) on to the stage, before trussing it up and suspending it from chains, as her brothers watch her labours with malicious enjoyment. The seedy atmosphere of male power and exploitation is potent. Frantic Assembly-esque stylised sequences showing vest-clad muscle-rippling men pushing themselves to the limit, jogging, grunting, sweating are frightening, and Orlando Gough’s boisterous, overwhelming music is a virile wall of noise. The largely female creative team have succeeded in creating a production which seems to illustrate everything that is disturbing for women about the world of men.
Joan Iyiola is our Duchess. She is a beacon of female power. She is positively radiant (strangely, her tribute “she stains the time past, lights the time to come” has been cut – but the sentiment stands) and Iyiola manages to command the space in such a way I have seen large, domineering male actors struggle to do. Her presence is unmissable and her power unquestionable, even at her bitter end. We are privy to the beautiful intimacy of the female friendship between the Duchess and her maid, Cariola, and the true love she shows for her steward and husband, Antonio. But, surrounded by the brawn of the male crowd, Iyiola takes on a masculine poise like a second skin: clenching fists, guttural howls, immovable. Her song – atop the “mad folk” Ferdinand sends to terrorise her – is a gorgeous, elegiac chant made androgynous by Iyiola’s deep, rasping vocals. It is a harrowing conclusion that one must ‘become male’ to survive in a male world – but one that seems worryingly true.
Aretha Ayeh’s Julia is less Webster’s “woman of pleasure” but more a victim of the Cardinal’s predation. This relationship quickly turns destructive in perhaps the most sickening sequence of a play which ends pooled in blood, with the grim reality of sexual assault on women played out to appalling effect.
But it is not only women that are shown to be at the mercy of this toxic male atmosphere – but men are too. Notably Alexander Cobb as the deeply disturbed Duke Ferdinand: twitching almost to effervescence, prowling the stage and growling like a wolf before his madness takes him totally in Act 2, childishly reaching for his older brother whilst incestuously kissing his twin sister. Ferdinand’s deadly discontent seems to come from a desperate need for acceptance and validation – his powder-pink suit and effeminate mannerisms isolate him totally from the bristling masculinity that permeates so heavily – and it comes to a head at the beginning of Act 2 in which he is confronted by a mob, terrified, and stabs the carcass in a desperate attempt to ‘prove himself’ (cue the river of blood). Cobb is beautifully conflicted: vile and villainous, yet the sense of confused fear when confronted with his doctor, the whispered plea of “What’s he?” before he folds into his brother’s arms, is so sad. Chris New’s Cardinal becomes a father figure to his unwell younger brother.
The blood is dark, sticky, and plentiful. More than plentiful. The stage is replete with the red stuff to the extent that the front rows were flinching and ducking as actors writhed and thrashed and got themselves well and truly soaked. Slips and falls proved worrying and it sometimes seemed actors were (rightly) afraid of walking too fast, but it sure is fun to see that much blood. Watching as the Cardinal’s pristine white gloves and white napkin get saturated in blood is a satisfying signal of his inescapable sin, whilst Ferdinand’s bloodied hand prints on the Duchess’ bed illustrate his sexual obsession with her.
The climax of the play may more rightly be labelled an anti-climax – with Nicolas Tennant’s Bosola given the last line and (as he is in the rest of the production) it is a dud. Ferdinand’s howl of “O, my sister!” would be far more fitting as an ending, but watching Bosola slump into the blood as the lights go out left the audience wondering whether or not to clap. Tennant gives Bosola none of the conflict that the character needs, and he fades into the background even in his great speeches. Andrew Woodson is a sweet – if a little underbaked – Geordie tech-geek Antonio, who delivers “sweet armful” with a moving fatherly gentleness.
A play about corruption, power/servitude, sex, religion – but Aberg’s retelling becomes an almost cautionary tale of the dangers of unbridled masculinity. Admittedly, this production – as a consequence – neglects many of the other themes (it is inevitable, with the action cut to just over two hours), but this production seems to create an entirely new The Duchess of Malfi, with unique characterisations, thrilling performances, and an awful lot of kick.