THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 15th March, 2018
Maria Aberg’s trimmed-down version of the John Webster tragedy begins with the title character dragging a headless animal corpse onto the stage. It’s massive and no easy task. The thing is strung up by its hind legs and remains in place throughout the performance. Aberg is fond of her gimmicks (remember the big balloons in her King John) and this dead cow is the big one for this production. Not only does this bovine body symbolise butchery (and what self-respecting revenge tragedy would be without butchery?) but it also represents the female form as object, as a piece of meat, of something to be consumed.
The stage is marked by the overlapping lines of a sports hall, a distinctly masculine arena, and indeed the choreography of the male actors comes across like the worlds’ most aggressive Zumba class.
The Duchess’s brothers, one a clergyman, the other a Duke, seek to quash their sister’s independence. How dare she choose her own husband?! And so, church and state conspire to have the wayward woman comply to their will. As Duke Ferdinand, Alexander Cobb is darkly camp, unhinged and psychotic, while Chris New as the supposed holy man is overtly brutal and sinister in his dog collar and white gloves. They are the villains, to be sure, but so is the world where toxic masculinity is the only way to go. But it’s #NotAllMen – the Duchess’s love interest is the nerdy, Clark Kent-alike Antonio (Paul Woodson) who has less of the serial killer to him and more of the cereal café. His love scenes with the Duchess are all the sweeter because we just know their happiness will be short-lived – from our point of view; a few years elapse during the two-hour traffic of this stage.
Orlando Gough’s original music adds otherworldliness to the piece and above all a sense of foreboding. The absolute highlight of the evening is a blistering rendition of the old standard, “I’ll Put A Spell On You” sung by Aretha Ayeh, while the Duchess and Antonio dance in a loving embrace. Gradually, Gough’s tones take over. It is Aberg at her most Emma Rice and it works beautifully.
The ever-present animal carcass is stabbed open by Ferdinand at the top of the second half. Blood oozes inexorably across the floor, like the inevitable, impending denouement, like the mortality that will inescapably claim us all. The characters carry on oblivious of the creeping puddle at their feet. They fight, struggle with, and murder each other, becoming coated and drenched in the stuff. I suspect this is the reason why the costumes are present-day: for ease of replacement and cleaning!
As the Duchess, Joan Iyola is elegant and commanding, sultry, sensual and above all controlled – a little too much perhaps during moments of extremis. Hired killer Bosola, (Nicolas Tennant) waxes philosophical, regretting he allowed the horse to bolt before he barred the stable door in a show of conscience awakened too late. He’s the most interesting character of the lot. While other cast members can match Tennant’s power and presence, they are not given the range of facets to explore.
At turns brutal and tender, the production proves eminently watchable and provocative but its point, like its blood-drenched characters, proves somewhat too slippery.