The Duchess of Malfi, 4****, RSC Swan, Stratford-Upon-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 towering 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

2018-04-19 10:44:57

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