The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster, directed by Maria Aberg, RSC, Swan Theatre, 8 March 2018
Reviewed by Peter Malin
I hadn’t intended to review this production but, given its enthusiastic reception in the press, I thought a dissenting voice might be of some value. In 2014, Maria Aberg inflicted considerable damage on Webster’s other great tragedy, The White Devil, also at the Swan. During that show’s interval, the buzz consisted entirely of urgent questioning between baffled audience members desperate to discover who was who and what the hell was going on. I sympathised; I have written extensively on the play and I was as confused as anyone. Despite Aberg’s intervening success with Doctor Faustus in 2016, then, I came to The Duchess with low expectations and an enormous sense of apprehension. This time, despite the director’s best efforts, Webster’s play just about survived (sighs of relief all round). But then there was the bull – and the blood.
Don’t get me wrong; I have no objections to modern or post-modern interpretations of early modern drama, as long as they serve the plays and don’t patronise the audience. Phyllida Lloyd’s production of Duchess at the National Theatre in 2003, for example, set in a bleak technological dystopia, was brilliant. Equally, see my review on this site of Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Edward II, also at the National. But if I want to see someone – the Duchess, as it happens – laboriously (and incomprehensibly) dragging the decapitated carcass of an enormous bull across the stage, like Mother Courage in an abattoir, I’d rather go to an art installation in a radical gallery. Designer Naomi Dawson explained in the programme that the dead bull ‘symbolically sits in the space throughout the piece’; but what is it symbolic of? Forgive me for being dense, but how does a slaughtered bull (masculine) stand for a violated woman? Despite such confusions, this production seemed desperate to spell out for us what is already embodied in Webster’s dramaturgy. Are audiences so stupid that they cannot be trusted to notice contemporary moral and ideological resonances in old plays?
Equally patronising was the assumption that our attention spans are now so limited that we cannot sit through a full-text production of a great Jacobean tragedy. Here, the play was deprived of its beginning, its ending, a number of significant characters, various intriguing plot-turns and a fair amount of Webster’s most accomplished and evocative poetry. As in most productions, the threat of impending military action was airbrushed from the play – a perverse decision in view of Dawson’s justification of her set design, which (apparently) embodied the ‘model of masculinity’ represented in the ‘competitiveness and aggression’ of ‘both sport and the military’. This production was a mere digest of the play, its subtleties, complexities and ambiguities ironed out in favour of heavy-handed preaching to the already-converted.
Fortunately, the RSC had assembled a first-rate acting company that, against the odds, managed to give a powerful reading of what was left of the play. Alexander Cobb and Chris New offered a disturbing double-act as the Duchess’s obsessive brothers. Paul Woodson portrayed Antonio effectively as a Geordie Clark Kent, though his accent was often in conflict with the clarity of his diction. Joan Iyiola was a Duchess of attractive humanity, emotional complexity and courageous strength of will, a worthy successor to her illustrious RSC predecessors. And Nicolas Tennant gave full value to Bosola’s troubling moral contradictions, fully aware that he is actually the play’s central character.
In The White Devil, Cardinal Monticelso, newly elected Pope, admonishes Lodovico, ‘Dost thou imagine thou canst slide on blood | And not be tainted with a shameful fall?’ (4.3.118-19). Such is the brilliance of this image that there is no need to do more than ensure the actor delivers it with both vocal precision and emotional weight. Sliding on blood, however, became the dominant visual motif of Aberg’s Duchess of Malfi, from the moment shortly after the interval when Ferdinand slashed the bull’s suspended carcass to release an apparently endless flow of what looked like deep crimson washing-up liquid. By the start of Act 5, the stage floor had been transformed from puddle to pool to lake to sea of oozing blood, and it was clearly important to Aberg that every single character should slide, roll and writhe in it before the end of the play. Hmm. There’s a great deal I could say about this; what a relief, for example, that I hadn’t gone for the seat I was offered in the front row, and had therefore avoided spending the second half of the show wrapped in a blood-proof blanket. And what a series of insults this represented: to Webster, for not crediting his language with sufficient power to communicate the effects of violence without resorting to horror-comic overkill; to the audience for assuming they couldn’t imagine the effects of violence, given the world we live in; and to both, for refocusing attention during the play’s climax and denouement on the safety of the slithering actors and the extent of the show’s laundry demands, rather than on the working out of retribution, nemesis and tragic catharsis.
 Naomi Dawson, ‘Man Made’, The Duchess of Malfi, RSC, 2018, programme. Dawson’s choice of the word ‘piece’ rather than ‘play’ is revealing.
 Most notably Peggy Ashcroft (1960), Judi Dench (1971) and Harriet Walter (1989).
 John Webster, The White Devil, ed. by John Russell Brown, Revels Student Editions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996).