The Duchess of Malfi – Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Writer: John Webster

Director: Maria Aberg

Reviewer: Katy Roberts

Maria Aberg returns to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) with an arresting and timely production of John Webster’s revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. Masculinity and madness loom large throughout, and Aberg’s clever direction and Naomi Dawson’s powerful staging bring the issue of toxic masculinity front and centre with devastating consequences for the innocents caught up in its maelstrom. It feels like no accident that Press Night took place on the 8th March: International Women’s Day.

The Duchess of Malfi opens with Joan Iyiola’s Duchess hauling the enormous carcass of a bull across the stage, watched ominously by her two brothers, Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) and the Cardinal (Chris New). The carcass remains strung up in the right-hand corner of the set throughout the play; a symbol of enormous power and strength, but also a beast trussed up and slaughtered. It is placed against a backdrop of traditionally masculine environments: a derelict sports stadium, a brutal underground gym, an abattoir. To contrast with the masculine, we also have touches of the feminine; realised here as the Duchess’ bed, placed front and centre. It is a safe haven for the Duchess and Antonio – her maid Cariola (Amanda Hardingue) blesses their marriage knelt upon it – but as the action moves on, this loving, private space is increasingly violated, with escalating brutality. Dawson’s set design is simple, slick and stylish, perfectly conveying the atmosphere of all three environments, setting the tone from the opening moments.

Malfi follows the downfall of the titular Duchess. She is fiercely independent; defiant in the face of her brothers’ attempts to prevent her from marrying again. The Duchess chooses to follow her heart, falling deeply in love with and marrying her steward, Antonio (Paul Woodson, in his RSC debut), in secret. In revenge for the terrible wrong they believe that she has done them, her siblings embark on a quest to destroy her. The Cardinal is fueled by a twisted belief in his own faith, and Ferdinand by a disgust and incestuous jealousy that ultimately evolves into a horrifying descent into madness, driving the action all the way to its (very bloody) conclusion. The growing dread that drives the play bleeds into every corner of the show’s second half, symbolized brilliantly with the slashing of the bull’s swollen torso by Ferdinand at the opening of Act 2; where, for the next 45 minutes, a thick ooze of scarlet seeps across the stage.

Joan Iyiola’s performance as the Duchess is a tour de force; the chemistry between her and Paul Woodson’s Antonio is perfectly pitched, their relationship sensual and tender. The two of them are equals, always. Not so in the eyes of her brothers, who would see their sister kept chaste forever to avoid tainting ‘their’ blood with someone of inferior standing. However, Iyiola’s Duchess is a woman who will not be so easily driven into submission. She rails against the insanity of her brothers, furious and defiant to the last. The play’s most famous line – “I am Duchess of Malfi, still!” is imbued with strength and agency, even as she stands with ropes taunt around her neck; whatever else her brothers have taken from her, the Duchess still has her pride, and she’ll be damned if any man will reduce her to a wreck.

Another standout performance comes from Alexander Cobb as Ferdinand, in one of the most stunning debut performances surely to ever grace the hallowed RSC stage. The aforementioned maelstrom of toxic masculinity personified, this Ferdinand is a whirlwind of fury. However, Cobb’s performance avoids falling into the easy trap of being two-dimensional. It is a slow, sinister burn of a performance, full of nuance, rather than an exploding powder keg. There are flashes of blistering anger, but these are coupled – often in the same breath – with loving, incestuous platitudes – thus making Ferdinand all the more dangerous and unpredictable. His line to the Duchess in Act 2 – “there is too much light in you” – is particularly chilling, laced with the echoes of any man who has ever reacted violently to rejection by a woman. The Duchess is so full of light that it blinds him, and his obsession with snuffing it out ultimately drives him insane.

The one disappointment in Aberg’s direction lies with the accent given to Woodson’s Antonio. Undoubtedly given to show the difference in status between the Duchess and her steward, it feels unnecessary, particularly as the text does much of the work for us establishing this in the opening scenes. In an otherwise captivating production, this proves to be a distraction, preventing Antonio’s lines from landing as effectively as they should. This a shame, as Woodson’s overall performance is worthy of praise, particularly during a scene towards the end of Act 1, where Antonio and the Duchess dance to a stunning rendition of Annie Lennox’s I Put A Spell On You, performed by Aretha Ayeh.

Music plays a huge role in this production, and David Ridley’s direction here is outstanding. Every piece of music in the play is there for a reason, and every note is layered with symbolism. This consideration even extends to the setup of the show’s band. Consisting of ‘masculine’ instruments – one set of drums, three electric guitars, and a bass guitar – these are used to full effect to create a muscular wall of sound that clearly presents the play’s themes without a single word being uttered. In stark contrast to this stand the production’s quieter moments, where more “feminine” soundscapes are used, and the rising distress of the Duchess reaches a crescendo. Ridley flips the idea of the masculine and feminine on its head here, as Iyiola’s haunting vocals, accompanied by a male falsetto and solely male choir, are put to spectacular use as the Duchess, imprisoned and awaiting her fate, grieves the loss of her eldest child and Antonio, bent double, howling with despair.

Maria Aberg’s decision to bring toxic masculinity, aggression, and male power and dominance to the forefront of Malfi highlights the ongoing relevance of Webster’s revenge tragedy. Arguably, it feels more relevant now, in 2018, than perhaps it ever has. The two central performances by Joan Iyiola and Alexander Cobb are phenomenal (as far as debut performances go, Cobb’s will surely lead to stardom), excelling within an incredibly strong cast. Naomi Dawson’s inspired staging is lifted up another level by David Ridley’s clever and nuanced use of music and sound throughout. This Duchess of Malfi forces us to look unflinchingly into the face of the dark side of masculinity, and dares us to look away.

Runs until 4 August 2018 | Image: Helen Maybanks(c) RSC

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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