Theatre trip: the Duchess of Malfi

 London F48

On a beautiful Spring day the coach commandeered by MPW wended its way through Stratford, hindered by a series of diversions caused by Saint George’s Day celebrations. But what of the play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries we were here to see?  

The word ‘bloodbath’ is often used of the denouements of Jacobean revenge tragedies but it can seldom be so literally applied as in the case of the RSC’s 2018 production of John Webster’s 1614 masterpiece The Duchess of Malfi. Those occupying the front stalls are issued with blankets in the second half of the production because the amount of blood which oozes from the carcass of a decapitated horse at the beginning of it, is by the end a sticky, viscose and uncannily (under the lights) glittering substance covering the whole of the stage and lapping at its margins. Characters walk through it and ultimately fall into it, merging with it.

It is Ferdinand who stabs the carcass immediately after the interval, signalling (and this is arguable) that he alone is responsible for all the blood that flows thereafter. That blood slowly obliterates the stage floor with its tennis court markings: we are presumably intended to recall Bosola’s fifth act judgement that, “we are the stars’ tennis balls, struck and bandied which way please them.”

This sanguineous, visually arresting element of the production threatens to swamp, as it were, all other considerations but the Duchess is compellingly played by Joan lioyla and her trajectory from a skittish sister defying her brothers’ dictates to a figure of tragic and stoical grandeur is an arc perfectly described. The Duchess who is unjustly executed at the end of Act IV remains covered in blood on a bed throughout most of the next act and this answers qualms about Webster’s dramatic structure. Why kill off the heroine a full act before the play’s conclusion? I’d argue that this is not a weakness in the play for the Duchess haunts the minds of others (and in this production that inescapably includes the audience) in the next act.  The actors are in modern dress and I would have preferred to see the Cardinal in scarlet finery wading through a sea of blood because that would have enabled this production to remind its audience of the anti-Papism implicit in the original play. But I acknowledge that it is in no way part of this production’s agenda to offer a historical reading of the text. I’ll admit in any case that my vision of things is the consequence of exposure in youth to Francis Bacon’s screaming popes!

In this production the Cardinal looked more like a current member of the Church of England clergy at a village fete, in dog collar and short sleeves but there were two notable sartorial additions: from the start he wore surgical gloves and in the second half of the play white shoes. I found myself hypnotised by these since they seemed precisely the wrong choice of footwear given the aforementioned glittering and growing pool but the shoes whether by chance or design did not bear the brunt of the crimson tide. Both the gloves and the shoes made a telling point about the capacity on the part of these men of power to operate nefariously for so long without staining their reputations. It is men like Bosola who bear the brunt of crimes ordered by their social superiors. Bosola was well-played by Nicholas Tennant and put me in mind of Bob Hoskins who played that role in ‘my first Duchess’, which I saw before going up to university in 1980. Helen Mirren played the titular figure to perfection. It is tough act for any other production to scale the heights of that one!

An eerie soundtrack played throughout this production and this was more effective I felt than when the music took centre stage: the use of a version of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ was frankly incoherent since it was unclear whether the words applied to Antonio’s feelings for the Duchess or the Duchess’ feelings for Antonio or Ferdinand’s incestuous desires for his sister! Ferdinand, rather inexplicably dressed in a pink rag of a suit, left less of an impression upon me than the Cardinal and this is not the way it should be in the light of the more fascinating psychology of the former figure by the side of the conventional motivations of the latter.

Butchery extended to the text. There were numerous cuts and re-attributions of speeches likely to raise the blood pressure of any teacher in the audience who wanted to use this event primarily for the purposes of revision! I missed particularly the opening section in which Antonio describes in a diatribe the negativity of the brothers and in a subsequent encomium the perfection of their sister, prior to any recognition that his feelings are reciprocated. Most painful to me of all the cuts was the fact that the last sequence of the play in which the one surviving son walks on stage in the company of Delio had been removed. In most productions the young boy has to circumvent corpses, a powerful image itself; in this one he would have had to walk through a pool of blood too, an even more arresting visual conceit. Given that any claim he might make in adulthood to the duchy of Malfi is likely to be fiercely contested by two other claimants - generating a further bloodbath - this was an opportunity that should have been taken.

These carps aside, this was a production likely to live in the minds of the MPW students who saw it and be of tremendous benefit to them in the short term in the imminent exam. Certainly as we re-grouped at the end of the performance it was clear from conversations that this was a production that had delivered for them.

Richard Martin

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