Audience members were offered a blanket when they walked into the second half of The Duchess of Malfi in preparation for the blood-filled spectacle they were about to be (quite literally) engulfed in. The powerful story of misogyny, treachery and revenge is both shocking and striking.
John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, written in the 1600s, is performed in modern dress to bring the importance of the themes into today’s society. The play tells the story of two brothers Ferdinand (Alexander Cobb) and the Cardinal (Chris New) who forbid their sister The Duchess of Malfi (Joan Iyiola) to remarry. She instantly defies them and marries a slave Antonio (Paul Woodson), and when the Cardinal and Ferdinand find out about her betrayal they punish her rather brutally.
Directed by Maria Aberg, it is a revival with themes of feminism and power that resonate with today, beneath Webster’s poetic language is a message that really stings. This is amplified by Naomi Dawson’s design which gives the production a modern twist, creating a space that resembles an underground gym. The whole thing reeks of masculinity and the occasional outbursts of thumping, pounding and aggression by the ensemble both lifts the energy of the piece and cements that idea of military virility.
Joan Iyiola in the title role of the Duchess of Malfi is exceptional. She defines fearless with her strong, courageous and strident persona that has the audience hung on her every word. Iyiola has an air of class and manages to portray the perfect balance of the role. Her performance is both passionate and strong-willed, yet entirely authentic as she portrays the reality of her emotion so painfully on stage.
Brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal are dangerous and their actions are monstrous. Alexander Cobb performs Ferdinand’s manic obsession with his sister superbly, and his anger and hysteria are difficult to watch as he goes off the rails because his performance is so natural. Whilst Chris New’s take on the Cardinal is more reserved, calm and emotionally detached, his evil silence seeps through. As the only character lacking in passion, the ambiguity of his motives sparks questions.
Webster’s play is poetically written and charged with themes that are highly-thought provoking but the way this translates on stage is complex. Whilst the narrative is straight-forward, the dialogue at times feels convoluted in this particular adaptation.
Despite being set in a world that doesn’t feel naturalistic, it scarily reflects documentaries I’ve watched of how women are treated across the world. It’s an important issue projected through a piece of theatre that although sometimes feels overly-complex, its message speaks loudly.
The Duchess of Malfi is on at the Swan Theatre in the RSC until the 3rd of August, tickets and information can be found here.