Review:  The Duchess of Malfi

Review: The Duchess of Malfi

By Richard Lutz

Make no mistake. This is an outstanding RSC production of Webster’s dark tragedy The Duchess of Malfi. But it is one that drowns in blood.

Expect it.  There will be blood. And whether the lust for gore helps or hinders this otherwise riveting play, overseen by director Maria Aberg and her (almost) all women creative crew, is really dependent on personal taste.

The coming horror is heavily telegraphed in the opening scene. The  carcass of a headless beast is slowly dragged across the bleak Swan stage. The dead animal is then hung by the back legs. It looms over the rest of this Jacobean drama about a widowed duchess who falls for a servant and incurs the psychotic wrath of her two maniac brothers.

Just why the decapitated beast stays in full view is made clear in the second half.  People in the front rows are given waterproof sheeting, the carcass is ripped open and blood spills onto the stage and splatters. The rest of the play is  steeped in gore, actors slipping on the blood, their elbows deep in the rich red stuff.

The effect can’t dim Joan Iyiola’s outstandng portrayal of a fiercely independent woman who refuses to bow to her tormenters.  She shines amid the demented anger of her crazed kin:  the twitching Ferdinand (played by Alexander Cobb) and his sad-masochistic cleric brother (Chris New) with his weird penchant for white latex gloves.

The evil that men do is inevitable. The Duchess and her whole family succumb to the gore, the raging horror, the howling murders. The questions linger: does the audience survive the mad theatrics of blood or see the sharp chilling bones of a great play? Does the appalling bloodshed add to the horror of the story? Or has the production lost the plot?

 Until 3 August. Box office: 01789 403493. Online