Duchess of Malfi: 4****: RSC Stratford U Avon

Stratford Upon Avon

The Duchess of Malfi: John Webster


 RSC:  Swan Theatre

Runs: 2h 30m, one interval, to 3 August



Review: Rod Dungate, 17 April 2018


A chilling play for today that confirms Webster as a toweering English Renaissance playwright

Webster’s play of greed, class oppression and a woman’s right to control not only her destiny but also her body, is a masterpiece.  Its incredible intensity derives in major part from the plot’s claustrophobia, enhanced by most scenes, perhaps all, taking place indoors – in ‘these whispering rooms’.

The actors play to this strength with great skill, giving Webster’s language a naturalness which works hand-in-glove with the Swan’s intimacy.  The power of Webster’s language is not lost.  Webster struggled to break free of the bonds of blank verse while enjoying its power; Aberg’s production brings out both qualities.

Maria Aberg handles the play’s complexities with great skill (as she did in The White Devil); in her production we hear both the text flowing smoothly on the surface and sense the wild currents swirling beneath.  The excessive use of blood at the end is perfect; contrasting the clean, clinical murders earlier – again the production enhances Webster’s blueprint.  Aberg mars her own work, though, with a few loud dance and music sections.  While we see the machismo point of these they do little to add to our understanding and hold up the play’s flow, so carefully achieved by all.

Joan Iyiola is a fine Duchess. She brings nobility, authority and sophistication to the role, yet underpins it with innocence and vulnerability.  This is not a sexy Vittoria, but a natural woman who revels in her motherhood.  We can see here, in the contrast of the Duchess and Vittoria, Webster’s remarkable grasp of psychology.

Alexander Cobb (Ferdinand) and Chris New (Cardinal) create a totally nasty pair as her brothers.  They are evil, right enough, but pull back from pantomime villains.  A little more vocal management in their louder moments would further enhance their work.

One of the conventions of the Revenge plays is to have a new broom welcome in a new, cleaned-up world; Aberg cuts this, denying us this comfort.  Some may disagree with this choice, personally I found the effect chilling, apt for our times, and devastating.

Doctor: Jeff Alexander

Julia: Aretha Ayeh

Delio: Greg Barrett

Officer: Graeme Brooke

Ferdinand: Alexander Cobb

Silvio: Ashley Gayle

Counter Tenor: Francis Gush

Roderigo: Will Brown

Cariola: Amanda Hadingue

Grisolon: Richard Hurst

Officer: Solomon Israel

The Cardinal: Chris New

Bosola: Nicolas Tennant

Antonio: Paul Wood

The Duchess: Joan Iyiola

Director: Maria Aberg

Designer: Naomi Dawson

Lighting: Natasha Chivers

Music: Orlando Gough

Sound: Claire Windsor

Movement: Ayse Tashkiran

Fights: Rachel Bown-Williams

Fights: Ruth Cooper-Brown

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