REVIEW: ‘The Duchess of Malfi’, Swan Theatre, RSC

The Duchess of Malfi‘, Swan Theatre, RSC

  “Whether we fall by ambition, blood or lust, Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust”.

  The Duchess of Malfi is a woman with political power. More power than any man under her rule. Recently widowed, she asserts her freedom of choice and this new-found independence by secretly wedding her steward, Antonio. However, this breeds an incestuous jealousy in her dominating brothers – the Cardinal and the Duke Ferdinand – who set out to destroy her, to “bring her to despair”, intent on breaking the spirit of a woman who will not be broken.

  Considered one of the greatest plays in English renaissance drama, John Webster‘s gory revenge tragedy ‘The Duchess of Malfi’ is given the contemporary treatment in Maria Aberg‘s production for the RSC. A dynamic and innovative rendition, laying bare such timely issues as corruption, the abuse of power, and the misogynistic ideal of female submission, this powerful production offers a disturbing glimpse into the darkness of man.

Joan Iyiola (Duchess) and cast in the Duchess of Malfi. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

  Set in a gymnasium, places typically awash with testosterone, Naomi Dawson‘s design reminds us that the Duchess, despite her title and position, is a woman in a man’s world, subject to the oppression of a corrupt patriarchy, restricted by her gender. Her isolation is exposed when the stage is overwhelmed with a male ensemble who engage in Haka-like movement, a dance style commonly used as a form of intimidation between opposing rugby teams, a sport dominated by men, perhaps intended in this instance to show the intimidation of the Duchess at the hands of the sycophantic male characters in the play, believers in their own superiority to women.

  The production’s plot revolves around the Duchess’ desire to remarry, and the desire of her brothers to prevent her from doing so. Joan Iyiola‘s Duchess is a force to be reckoned with, and she makes very clear that this is her story. Fiercely independent, the Duchess refuses to submit to the will of her brothers, and to the sexist conventions of a flawed society. With an inspiring show of strength, Iyiola’s Duchess is a character who can hold her own in a world of men. A symbol of light, purity and chastity, the darkness of her brothers seeks to eclipse her goodness, as she becomes subject to their oppressive tyranny. Her death scene is so very poignant – she breaks free of the ropes that strangle her, her two killers locked in a meaningless tug-of-war behind her, as she ascends onto what was her marriage bed, now her grave. Although stripped of her power, Iyiola’s Duchess retains her dignity, her nobility, and her self-control, even at the point of her death, and is finally free of the bonds that held her in life.

Joan Iyiola (Duchess) in the Duchess of Malfi. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

  Alexander Cobb‘s masterfully unhinged Ferdinand provides a realistic portrait into the mind of a man driven mad by his own relentless ambition, falling victim to this “great man’s madness”. Although a great man respecting his position in society, Ferdinand is by no means a good one, representing the dark, primitive nature of mankind. Ruled by his passions, his baseness merits the idea that everybody has the capacity for evil within, but his lack of self-control, enables him to act on his carnal desires without remorse. His descent into lycanthropy only reflects the beastliness within. In a bid to preserve the purity of his family’s lineage, his lack of morality only serves to strip him of such, clouding his family with darkness. His constant comparison to a tempest captures the nature of his personality – turbulent, unstable, explosive – and Cobb reflects such traits flawlessly.

  Chris New‘s Cardinal, an embodiment of those corrupt officials governing in a politically unstable world, is inextricably wound up with the abuse of power. With an alarming disregard for morality considering a man in his ecclesiastical position he is, unlike his brother, unperturbed by passion, his motives for wanting to destroy the Duchess therefore unclear. Despite his obvious displeasure at his sister’s ‘alleged’ wantonness, the Cardinal himself has a mistress, Julia (because the rules are always different for men). At one point in the production he sexually dominates Julia (played by Aretha Ayeh), and this graphic, quite distressing scene just shows his perverse desire to be constantly in control. Throughout the production, New wears a pair of white gloves – unwilling to get his hands dirty, he hires others to do his dirty work for him. Puppet-master, he remains on the side-lines, observing and conspiring from a distance, pulling the strings. A cold-blooded megalomaniac, he does what he needs to do in order to retain his power.

Joan Iyiola (Duchess), Alexander Cobb (Ferdinand) and cast in The Duchess of Malfi. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

  Nicolas Tennant‘s Bosola is a very significant character with a key role, and the production heavily focuses on the bitter inner struggle he undergoes due to his shifting morals. A complex character, he is one who is not evil, yet commits acts of evil. Hitman-turned-avenger, he seems to exist outside of the social system, and is thus able to peer in with an unbiased view, merely an employee, “creature” to Ferdinand, revealing honest truth regarding society, and it is he who appears to learn the most, having undergone much character development. His remark that we are “merely the star’ tennis balls” highlights his knowledge that all the play’s characters, himself included, are manipulated, bandied to and fro, prey to the devastating interaction between free will, and fate, “unfortunate fortune”, vividly evoking man’s inability to control the future.

  When the production begins, the Duchess hauls on to the stage the huge, headless carcass of a wild beast. The animal remains onstage for the entirety of the production, Ferdinand slashes its stomach at the start of the second half, seeming to begin his incision near the sexual organs. Soon blood gushes out until the entire stage is covered in its blood. The cast walk through it unflinchingly, oblivious to the swell beneath their feet. “There is not in nature a thing so deformed, so beastly, as doth intemperate anger”. Could it be, then, that this beast, its blood spreading across the stage, is a symbol of such anger, primitive and animalistic, poisoning everything in its wake, where it festers and boils? At the end of the play, the blood of the characters mingles with the blood of the animal, indistinguishable, as the characters become like animals, they end up sharing the same fate, and the carcass therefore becomes a symbol of there own beastliness, at which “man stands amazed to see his deformity in any other creature but himself”.

Alexander Cobb (Ferdinand) and Chris New (Cardinal) in The Duchess of Malfi. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

  Simultaneously, unfortunate though it may be, there appear to be striking similarities between this animal and our Duchess. A trophy animal, the beast appears as a vivid foreshadowing, warning of what is to come for the Duchess: a mere trophy bound to her brothers, her blood – the life force – and her reasons for living are drained. “The pure blood of innocents” is trampled underfoot – and nobody seems to notice, or indeed, care. Free will is a significant concept that distinguishes man from beast , and this play suggests that the Duchess, simply due to her gender, is not better – both are bound, restricted by man.

  Interestingly, Aberg’s production lacks the final lines of Webster’s original text – here, Delio establishes the Duchess’ eldest son, sole survivor of her family, as a symbol of hope, as representative of the Duchess’ values through which her spirit may live on. However, no such hope exists here. The production ends with complete and utter devastation, an all-out bloodbath. So very tragic, so gut-wrenching, Bosola’s final lines seem to ring true:

  “Oh this gloomy world! In what shadow, or deep pit of darkness, doth womanish and fearful mankind live!”.

Alexander Cobb (Ferdinand) and Joan Iyiola (Duchess) in The Duchess of Malfi. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

   Brian Gibbons, Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of Münster, Germany, states that Webster’s play “shows humanity expressing its sunniest and its blackest potential”, and there is no higher praise I can offer than to simply state that Aberg’s production does just that. And then some.

  With Aberg’s clear, bold direction, this visceral production is fast-paced, thrilling, and powerfully evocative. Tackling the issues raised in Webster’s text head-on, the likes of which would no doubt have been considered ‘taboo’ by seventeenth-century audiences, the play remains as shocking as ever, timely given that the issues raised are still so prevalent in today’s ‘civilised’ society, with little or no progression. The production echoes Webster’s cynical views, exploring the concept that there is a darkness in mankind that, when acted upon, can have devastating consequences, for themselves and others. However, in a dark world, full of corruption and cruelty, the Duchess’ inspiring display of female defiance remains a light, illuminating the notion that the values she embodies are present in so many today, and it can therefore be said with conviction that she remains:

“Duchess of Malfi still”.

Joan Iyiola (Duchess) in The Duchess of Malfi. Photo credit: Helen Maybanks

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