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Bloody bloody

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.

malfi

Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) holds the Duchess (Joan Iyola) in a fraternal embrace… (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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AS YOU LIKE IT

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 25th April, 2013

 

Maria Aberg’s production of one of Shakespeare’s more uneven comedies is a qualified success.  It falls to a strong cast to lift the show out of some rather muddy ideas.   It gets off to a good start.  The opening exchanges between Orlando and old servant Adam, and then between Orlando and his big brother Oliver are very nicely played and staged, but when we move to the court of Duke Frederick, things take a turn for the bizarre.  The courtiers do a dance, a jerky, spasmodic routine that I guess is meant to convey something about the confinements and restrictions placed on them.  It’s a bit weird and distracts from the action of the scene and, what is most odd, we don’t get anything else like this throughout the piece.  The idea is underused and undeveloped.  The production gains nothing by its inclusion.

The wrestling scene is visceral. Malcolm Ranson has created more of a bare-knuckle fight than a wrestling match.  Orlando proves to be enough of a biter to merit a signing as a professional footballer.

This play stands or falls on its Rosalind and Orlando.  Aberg has two of the best I’ve seen.  Pippa Nixon is spot on as the disenfranchised Duke’s daughter, assured enough to be witty and young enough to be swept away by love at first sight.  She turns to cross-dressing as a means of survival, playing the comedy and the dramatic irony to the hilt.  Her role-playing scenes with Orlando are funny and touching, eliciting many an ooh and an aww from the sixth-formers in the balcony.  Nixon has been good in previous productions.  In this one she is excellent.

Alex Waldmann makes his Orlando likeable from the start.  His scenes with faithful old manservant Adam (David Fielder) are wonderful.  Orlando’s affections become preoccupied with Rosalind and Waldmann is adorable in his halting attempts to compose a song for her.  It is good to see him in  more light-hearted scenes, and he plays them with truth and credibility.

Aberg’s Forest of Arden is foliage free and infested with new-age travellers, refugees from a Levellers’ concert.  It all gets a bit too hippy-dippy and Glastonbury festival for my tastes.  Melancholic Jaques (Oliver Ryan) is peculiar, tripping out to an acoustic guitar. The comic business between Touchstone and Audrey, and Silvius and Pheobe, is a little encumbered by the set – a sort of revolving gazebo affair.  The play works best when the scenes are played in such a way that you can overlook the setting, ignore the fridge, and enjoy Shakespeare expertly delivered.

Luke Norris is very good as Oliver and John Stahl makes his mark as the tyrannical Duke – a pity we only hear about his demise rather than seeing him again but, hey ho, that’s Shakespeare.  Michael Grady-Hall gives depth to the minor role of Silvius although his Phoebe (Natalie Klamar) is a little too annoying.  Nicolas Tennant’s Touchstone starts off as Charlie Cairoli from the waist up and Max Wall from the waist down, but ends up as a debauched Godspell reject.  He tries to engage in some improvised patter with an audience member; hilariously it falls flat. “I’m back on the text now,” he points out, “We’ve got a long way to go.”

He’s right.  It is a bit long and could stand a few cuts.  Rosalind’s song, for example, during which a quartet of female characters parade around with flaming torches – the woman beside me leaned towards my ear and declared, “It’s like a sixth form play”.  I think, all in all, I enjoyed the production more than she did, because of the actors and despite the director!

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede

Pippa Nixon as Rosalind as Ganymede