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Review: The Duchess of Malfi (Swan Theatre)

John Webster's 17th-century play is revived in Stratford

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

It could be me, but I had a lot of unanswered questions about the RSC's new production of The Duchess of Malfi. And those questions came right from the off.

For example, why is the stage marked out like a school gymnasium, with plastic chairs and monkey bars across the back wall? Why, in the opening image of the play, does the noble and eponymous Duchess lug the ten-foot, headless carcass of an indeterminate creature across the stage? And once she's manoeuvred it into position, why is it hoisted, abattoir-like, to occupy an upstage quarter of the gymnasium, severely restricting movement for the entirety of the production?

It makes a contribution, this carcass, at the beginning of the second half, when one of the Duchess's villainous brothers slices it open, allowing blood to drain steadily and thickly across the playing area for the next hour, but this raises further questions, such as what's the point of this gratuitous bloodbath when all but the last few murders are performed by strangulation? Shock value? Visual imagery?

Meanwhile, why is everyone of status made to look like a walk-on from a soap opera? In whose world, for instance, does a Roman Catholic cardinal dress like a cut-price televangelist, complete with white golf shoes and latex gloves? Or a gentleman of Malfi – and the object of the Duchess's desire – present like an overgrown Geordie schoolboy?

More importantly, who thought it was a good idea to chop Webster's text about in such a way that significant plot points are either completely absent or buried unintelligibly in the morass of superfluous gore? Where, indeed, is the poetry in his play, much of it originally written in blank verse that is disappointingly invisible here?

On the creative side, why mix Orlando Gough's strident, electric guitar-led score so high that it crashes over the dialogue at crucial moments? Why is Naomi Dawson's design aesthetic so relentlessly determined to downplay the grandeur of the setting? And what possessed anyone to think that putting a bed downstage centre, further restricting the actors' movements and obscuring sightlines for far too much of the audience, would help the fluidity and epic sweep of this notoriously violent play?

If there's a smoking gun – and to be honest, that's about the only weapon that doesn't end up getting used – it clearly rests in the hands of director Maria Aberg. The only logical answer to all of these questions is that an overriding, all-consuming directorial conceit has blasted every other consideration from the rehearsal room. And if, as an audience member, you don't get it – as I freely admit I didn't – the whole production is fatally sunk, however hard the cast work.

In the end, I'm not sure who to feel sorrier for: the poor actors forced to slither and totter perilously through the lake of on-stage blood, the front-row audience thoughtfully draped in protective sheeting, or the RSC's laundry department.

The Duchess of Malfi runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 3 August.