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The Duchess Of Malfi - RSC Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Is this blood bath the most gory show of the year?
Innovative director Maria Aberg likes a sense of unpredictability in her creations and in her latest effort, the front row has to cower under protective plastic sheets to avoid a splattering, bloodbath on stage.

Duchess of Malfi RSC
Blood will out in the Duchess Of Malfi


Updating the murderous tale of The Duchess Of Malfi for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) to appeal to not just a modern-day audience but the under-25's, Aberg has simplified, edited and 'bloodified' the Jacobean play by John Webster.

The production is short at just over two hours, but it gives Titus Andronicus a run for its money on the murder and blood stakes with the stage resembling an abattoir at the close of the play. And that's complete with the carcass of a hanging dead bull.

It's not just blood that fills the stage either. There's a heavy dose of symbolism as this is a play dripping in struggles over power, sexuality, class and male domination.

It follows the beautiful and fiercely independent Duchess of Malfi (a vivid Joan Iyiola) who defies her unsavoury brothers by choosing her own lover - and worse than that, he's a commoner too, played with a winsome Geordie accent by Paul Woodson.

This Duchess is a woman ahead of her time and her strong will is obvious from the opening scene when she heaves the said dead bull on stage. Despite her slender frame, Iyiola 'mans up' well, particularly in the dance scenes when she gurns and curls her biceps like a youthful Grace Jones.

Duchess of Malfi RSC
Joan Iyiola as the Duchess


This defiance only enrages her brothers more into a series of vile, vengeful and twisted repercussions for the Duchess. What Aberg does so well is create a delicious tension from early on with memorable characterisations, particularly for the pair of sinister brothers, The Cardinal (Chris New) and Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb).

While the Cardinal cooly sexually assaults a woman before wiping his wet hand on the bed, in one of the many disturbing scene of the production, Ferdinand romps around in pastel designer outfits that belie his dark inner angry thoughts that become more and more enraged at his sister's happiness as the play unfolds.

All the while, Duchess' bed sits centre stage amid the masculine surroundings of sport and military backdrops. There's bleachers, the ground is laid out like a basketball court and the men in the Duchess' company do rigorous training sessions that are a mix of American football, boxing and military exercises. It's a little confusing but I guess the overall impression is supposed to be that this lady is living in a man's world.

Duchess of Malfi review RSC
Masculine surroundings in this RSC production


It's after the interval when things get really messy - literally and theatrically.

This is when a puddle of blood slowly gathers centre stage as the murders start. While the blood continues to spread increasingly for the next hour, it ends up becoming a distraction from the plot.

Pools of red menacingly head towards the anxious-looking front row of the intimate Swan Theatre. More worryingly, it makes the finale become more of a farce than a tragedy as the players slip and struggle to keep their footing at every entrance and exit, attracting many giggles. It's supposed to have dark humour, but not in that way.

Duchess of Malfi review RSC
Alexander Cobb as Ferdinand with Joan Iyiola as the Duchess


I'm sure the aim of having the various culprits and victims dying or becoming stained in blood was supposed to be symbolic and in many ways poetic, which it was to a point. But the endless blood flow went a little too far and turned a sublime idea into the ridiculous.

More's the pity as The Duchess of Malfi has touches of bold, brave and beautiful moments, often accompanied by piercing music including a touch of African melancholy choral songs that had real impact and a jazzy rendition of Put A Spell On You.

Also memorable was the strangulation scene, which was treated with sentiment and emotion, and featured two assassins in a kind of tug of war.

Aberg likes to take risks and be adventurous and her previous work for the RSC of Dr Faustus saw lead actors Sandy Grierson and Oliver Ryan light matches on stage each night to decide who would play Faustus or Mephistophilis. It's that kind of unpredictability that makes her work have an edge of excitement.

Although The Duchess Of Malfi didn't quite hit the mark in some respects and could have done with some more refinement and curbing back, particularly when it comes to the amount of blood, there's still much to take away from this production.

RATING:


The Duchess of Malfi will be performed at The Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until 3 August. Tickets are available from the RSC website.
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Why? See bloody, twisted historic play
When: Until 3 August
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Swan Theatre
Cost: 5 - 40
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