June 2, 2018, by Peter Kirwan

The Duchess of Malfi (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

I do hate Stratford-upon-Avon. Not only is it a six-hour round train journey from the East Midlands, but a single trespassing incident resulted in two cancellations and, most selfishly, me missing the first half hour of Maria Aberg’s spectacular (and spectacularly bloody) Duchess of Malfi. I am reliably informed by authorities (read: Twitter) that the production began with the Duchess (Joan Iyiola) dragging in an enormous, headless, bloated animal corpse, that was then hung up over the school-gym decorated stage as a presiding metaphor of something for the rest of the production. When I entered, in the middle of 2.4, it was to find Chris New’s Cardinal raping Aretha Ayeh’s Julia in a playground-cum-abattoir.

As is typical for Aberg, this was an intelligent, creative production that played freely with the text and focused its attention on arresting aural and visual theatrical coups. The showstopping set piece of the first half was a ferocious soul number, belted out by Ayeh from an upstage platform while the Duchess and Antonio (Paul Woodson) danced together, sharing their brief moment of happiness before the ruptures of act three. Julia’s angry rendition of the song, screaming of love as she fell to her knees while Antonio and the Duchess gazed on each other blissfully, offered a beautiful contrast between the two women’s stories at this point, connecting their present and future abuses. Aberg has shown a consistent interest in her RSC work in the dynamics of women’s suffering, and the unsparing treatment of Julia at the Cardinal’s hands (the dispassionate Cardinal wearing dog collar and white shoes and gloves, a clinical psychopath) set an early tone for the second half.

While Julia sang, figures began creeping out of the shadows, advancing on the oblivious Antonio and Duchess; these same figures then later appeared in an emphatic display of masculinity standing in for the pageant of banishment – stamping heavily to a beat, they surrounded the Duchess, who stood firm against them, rejecting their advances while holding her head high. Orlando Gough’s bass-heavy score and Claire Windsor’s sound design were integral to the production; as much as I dislike underscores, the subtle work ranged from literally unsettling, almost inaudible but tangible sub-bass rumbling as tension built, and erupted into electric rock when the tension broke. MD David Ridley’s programme note fascinatingly notes the consciously gendered choices of the rock band, the music part of the whole production’s systematic deployment of a toxic masculinity against the play’s women.

Iyiola was central, both in tableaux and in her main scenes. Her central positioning on the Swan’s thrust stage made her an object of everyone’s attention, lust and obsession. In a beautiful bit of staging, when Alexander Cobb’s Ferdinand (a modern variant on toxic masculinity, an immaculately groomed posh boy) invaded her bedroom and called out to her unseen lover, he moved downstage, pacing back and forth on three sides of the Duchess, speaking not just to a single man but to all men, imposing himself as a barrier between them and his now-isolated sister. Yet Iyiola was no passive victim but a passionate, powerful woman, who not only stood her own against the faceless hordes but stood unfazed by Ferdinand’s towering presence. Her relationship with Antonio was beautifully drawn, their parting tender (and I’m gutted that I missed their ‘marriage’).

The second half began with Ferdinand entering and slicing into the dangling animal corpse, allowing blood to start pouring out; blood which, over the course of the second half, formed a pool covering about half of the stage. Ferdinand was the first to stride through it, tracking red footprints across the rest of the stage, and was soon joined by everyone else. The stage became a visible record of the play’s violence, the bare footprints of the women clearly distinguishable from the large bootprints of the executioners. That Ferdinand was the one to puncture the corpse may have suggested his importance in being the one to push the play’s threats against women into their bloody realisation, but also more grotesquely figured his fascination with bodies, piercing it as he did low on the belly near where the genitalia would have been, and then in his mad scenes pursuing a fascination with others’ bodies, grabbing and biting.

The second half was enormously cut, with emphasis placed on the Duchess’s own final scenes. Madmen loitered on the back platform, in various stages of undress, with the lights glancing off the men’s muscular bodies and arms. Following the relevation of the bodies of Antonio and her son (effectively grotesque flayed skins, dangling from what looked like coat hangers), the Duchess sang a lament accompanied by the madmen; another showstopping number that showcased Iyiola’s extraordinary voice. The madmen later sang their own dismal number while Cariola (Amanda Hadingue) and the Duchess embraced, preparing for their death.

The Duchess’s death saw two more ripped men (Will Brown and Richard Hurst) emerge as her executioners; they forced her to kneel in the blood and placed a rope about her neck, before withdrawing to either side of the stage and pulling hard. The Duchess was pulled twice down into the blood, creating swirling patterns in the floor, before returning to her kneeling position; at what appeared to be the moment her neck broke, however, she suddenly broke free of the rope. The spectacle of the woman being killed was unbearable; Aberg cannily switched to a different mode of representation, in which the men pulled on empty air, the emphasis now on their straining muscles as they brought their full force to bear on extinguishing the woman’s life. The music broke into a choral lament, led by counter-tenor Francis Gush, while the Duchess dragged herself to her bed (already bloodied by Ferdinand) and died quietly there. Cariola’s death was less aestheticised; she fought back violently, and the two executioners ended up rolling with her in the blood in a death-lock. Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown’s fight direction turned these moments of violence into importantly contrasting statements.

As the stage filled with blood and fewer actors remained clear of its cloying effects, Nicolas Tennant’s Bosola came into his own. The post-murder sequence of Ferdinand asking Bosola why he had followed his orders was stunningly played; Ferdinand’s unspeakably audacious about-face, and Bosola’s stunned reaction, a jaw-dropping display of a society already rewriting its own history while the bodies of its victims were still warm and visible. Yet both men were played as human rather than caricatures; their grief, guilt and displacement all sickeningly plausible reactions to their heinous deeds. By contrast, the Cardinal was all villain, shoving his prayer book into Julia’s face and keeping his white gloves as clean as possible; next to him, Ferdinand and Bosola’s desperate attempts on his life in the final moments seemed almost – almost – heroic.

It was disappointing, then, that, as so often with contemporary productions of Jacobean tragedies, the production chose to bolt to its close. Aberg cut Julia and Bosola’s shared scenes (the Cardinal here seemed perfectly aware that Bosola was offstage), which left Julia’s murder a rather tangential moment, seemingly serving purely to put another female body onstage. The Cardinal’s followers were also cut, as was Delio (who last appeared in 3.1). Instead, the final act was compressed into a single sequence of impressions. Ferdinand cradled the Duchess’s body on the bed while Antonio (alone) stood on a balcony to go through the Echo scene; the Duchess spluttered her responses from Ferdinand’s arms, before getting up to take a seat upstage to watch the final slaughter. The concluding action was built around Bosola quickly killing Antonio and then turning straight to the Cardinal, the Duchess watching calmly as the four principal men (Ferdinand joining them) rolled in the blood. If not comical, it was somewhat anticlimactic; blink and you might have missed Bosola’s wound, and the production wound down with the men sat around the stage quietly dying, almost chatting as they prepared to die, while the Duchess reached out to touch the Cardinal’s head. As Bosola spoke his final words and died, the Duchess was the only ‘living’ presence still onstage.

While it felt like the production wasn’t sure what to do with itself once its title character died, this was a spellbinding Duchess. Its anger at times boiled over, and its stunning visual images and musical score created unforgettable indictments of violence against women. I only wish I’d been there on time to see more of the society being torn apart.

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