Peter Ormerod reviews The Duchess of Malfi, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
What a play for these times. Its tale of a woman's inner strength pitted against the ugly, vicious, domineering male culture in which she finds herself chimes so perfectly with current concerns that it's easy to forget it was written 400 years ago. And Maria Aberg's production could not be more psychologically effective or theatrically emphatic in its portrayal of a society gone so wrong.
It may not be for everyone, though. It begins with the vast, hulking and freakish carcass of an indeterminate beast being hauled onto the stage; it remains in full view, hanging from a chain, throughout the performance. It is a tremendously potent symbol of a pathetic and grotesque masculinity. At the start of the second half, it is slashed with a knife and exudes so much blood that the cast are pretty much swimming in it by the end. It seems to contaminate everything and everyone. No wonder those sitting in the front row were given blankets to save on the dry-cleaning bills.
The play, by John Webster, is arguably stronger thematically than it is dramatically. I tells of a fiercely independent Duchess who marries, in secret, the man she loves. This so displeases her disturbingly possessive brothers that they set out to destroy her. In terms of plot, it is a tad slight. But Aberg exploits magnificently the space this affords her imagination; and all her ideas are realised exquisitely.
The set resembles an abattoir-cum-sporting arena; you can almost smell the putrefying testosterone. Gangs of men hurl themselves into a twisted and violent haka-style dance. Meanwhile, scenes are composed with the visual elegance of a fine artist. And if it looks great, it sounds even better: many scenes are underscored with the eerie tones of distorted guitars; the music thrusts and struts and rumbles and enchants and bewitches and beguiles. At various points, it evokes David Lynch's work with Angelo Badalementi. I Put a Spell on You, sung by Aretha Ayeh as Julia, is rendered transcendently; counter tenor Francis Gush lends uncanny beauty to scenes of savagery; and Joan Iyiola, as the Duchess, showcases her own astonishing, almost subterranean singing voice in a mesmerising and intoxicating chorus of lament. Stereotypes of masculine and feminine musicality are undermined throughout. Composer Orlando Gough and sound designer Claire Windsor deserve as much applause as anyone.
Performances range from the strong to the majestic. Iyiola's Duchess is imbued with an unshowy might; she is entirely self-possessed and in control, even unto death. She is power personified. Nicolas Tennant's Bosola is never the straightforward thug he might be, while Amanda Hadingue's Cariola is surely everyone's idea of a perfect best friend. All the while, the play's men seem increasingly driven by forces outside their direct control: if the concept of toxic masculinity has hitherto seemed abstract, here it is tangible. It blinds these men to their own barbarity, which appals them, only for the cycle to continue.
This is searing, devastating stuff, and it feels entirely necessary. It will no doubt divide audiences, but those who trust Aberg's vision will be rewarded with an experience that gets the RSC's new season off to a remarkable and memorable start.
* Play runs until August 3. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/the-duchess-of-malfi to book.