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REVIEW: The Duchess of Malfi, RSC





Joan Iyiola as the Duchess and Alexander Cobb as Ferdinand. Photo: Helen Maybanks/RSC
Joan Iyiola as the Duchess and Alexander Cobb as Ferdinand. Photo: Helen Maybanks/RSC

Steve Sutherland reviews The Duchess of Malfi, at the Swan Theatre, until 3rd August

WHAT a bloody mess!

Literally and, unfortunately, figuratively, director Maria Aberg’s new adaptation of John Webster’s 1614 tragedy The Duchess Of Malfi is awash with confusion long before it descends into its already infamous bloodbath — the actors waddling ankle-deep in claret, the front row fearfully, protectively blanketed.

The plot (un)hinges around the fact that the Duchess wants to remarry and her chosen spouse is some bloke of apparently less than noble birth. And, er, that’s about it, except her brothers, Ferdinand and The Cardinal, are a bit miffed about it all and decide she must die.

Crucially, quite why this should be the case is never really explained.

If it is a matter of status — which is hinted at — then surely this is a chance to mine the still shamefully fertile subject of honour killing, amazingly, it’s an opportunity entirely overlooked.

So what else is there to account for all the ensuing carnage? A creepy whiff of incestuous desire on Ferdinand’s part, likewise pursued with lukewarm vigour. And that’s that.

In the dark as to why all this is happening, we turn to the cast for answers. No, scratch that. As if to add uncertainty to injury, for cast read miscast.

Alexander Cobb’s Ferdinand, all tics and jitters, is styled like some misbegotten bass-player from 1980s jazz-poppers Curiosity Killed The Cat, while Paul Woodson’s bespectacled love interest Antonio resembles nothing so much as some Geordie polytechnic geography lecturer, so underwhelmingly sexless as to be almost invisible. Why would the Duchess fall for him? Why indeed.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Tennant’s conniving manservant Bosola is the utter opposite, a bellowing brute who never seems to know what he’s doing or why from one moment to the next, so he just goes through it barking very loudly.

And then, most grotesque of all, there’s Chris New’s Cardinal, improbably supposed to be Ferdinand’s brother, attired like some golfer from the late 1970s, a malignant mash-up of Jimmy Tarbuck and Donald Trump!

What a motley crew — we find no answers here. And thus immediately expires all hope of any sympathetic engagement. Whatever goes on, we don’t know why and, hence, just don’t care.

In fact, in a feat virtually unprecedented in my experience, even when the corpses of two dead children are carried on, the audience remains unmoved. We feel absolutely nothing.

The sole believable relationship in this whole darn muddle exists between Amanda Hadingue’s sweetly handled hand-maiden Cariola, and Joan Iyiola, Ferdinand’s impossible twin, the Duchess herself, who veers from headstrong and defiant to washed-up and woebegone with some forceful elan.

Mostly, though, what any of these characters have to do with one another appears to be as much of a mystery to the players as it is to us, each of their performances wracked with doubt as they squirm about and constantly question themselves and each other as to their motivations.

They fail and we flounder.

It’s all very well jolting a famous work such as this out of its era to banish complacency. A radical edit and abstract re-presentation such as this can imbue it with a universality which speaks to contemporary concerns.

Then again, it can lead to utter absurdity. Sadly, that’s what happens here.

Mysteriously set in a gym with a bed in the middle, inexplicably invaded now and then by a macho dance troop hired in willy-nilly from Rent, it’s just befuddling, especially as it’s dominated by the hanging carcass of an unidentified beast which, when slit after the interval, is the source of all the blood.

Yup, it’s the proverbial and actual elephant in the room. Why all the blood when most of the murdered are actually strangled is, again, never tackled.

Maybe it’s symbolic? Your guess is as good as mine.

We exit with just one certainty, this gratuitous gory gimmick is the sole reason this production is ever likely to be recalled.



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