The Duchess Of Malfi – March 2018

Preview performance

Experience: 4/10

By John Webster

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Wednesday 7th March 2018

We appreciated the first half of this show much more than the second: but for some design choices, which to us seemed unfortunate, this would have been a feather in Maria Aberg’s cap. As it is, tickets may be returned, and I certainly won’t be recommending this production to any of our friends. My main problem was the excessive amount of blood: although there are a lot of murders in this play, they aren’t all bloody, and the amount of artificial red stuff on show was simply unnecessary, especially for someone as squeamish as myself. Remove the carcass (more on that later), remove the blood, and I’d be more than happy to see this again.

Thanks to the pre-show director’s talk, I was aware that the markings on the grey stage floor represented a gym or sports hall: my first thought on seeing them was the RSC’s Arden of Faversham industrial design production of 2014, and the grid-like construction at the back would have fitted in with that very nicely. However, the idea was to show us that the court was full of manly men, doing all sorts of physical activities to keep themselves fit and show off their manly prowess. The area at the back had some metal poles framing a wide platform with two levels, with steps up to each one. There were several dingy orange plastic seats on either side, and a large array of lights across the back wall and the upper balcony, both under it and along the front. Metal poles also provided the hand rails for the side and centre balconies, and there was no middle balcony.

That was it for the set – very Brechtian and modern. The costumes were modern as well, with the Cardinal, thankfully, wearing a dog collar (vicar, for the use of), along with his natty blue golfing outfit, to identify his religious status. Ferdinand, the Duchess’ brother, wore a pale suit with collarless shirt, while Bosola was mainly in jog pants and hoodie, as I recall. Cariola had some simple clothes, but the Duchess herself wore a number of different and stylish outfits, usually off the shoulder, and when she took them off, her modesty was preserved by a brown body suit. The only unusual item was the reddish bandage plastered to her right shoulder, presumably the result of an accident, but it didn’t get in the way of her performance.

It wasn’t a sell-out, but the place was close to packed. Before the start, an usher went round the front row seats, explaining about the risk of blood spatter – presumably the RSC were prepared to change their seats if anyone objected. During the interval, the same usher handed out grey blankets to those same seats! We were safely tucked away by the right walkway, several rows back.

In trying to avoid spoiling things for those who hadn’t yet seen this production, and especially for those who didn’t know the play, the director and interviewer had been very coy about much of the details, so although they had mentioned something being dragged onto the stage, it wasn’t clear what this was, nor when it happened. Turns out, it was right at the start. The banks of lights were on low, but went out when some chords sounded, and then a light shone from behind the left walkway. The Duchess, dressed in joggers and a vest, stood there for a bit, then turned and began to drag a large shape onto the stage. To be honest, it looked like an oversized mutant turkey to begin with, but we reckon it was meant to be a cow or similar. (According to the program notes, it’s the carcass of an oversized, abstract bull.) It was down to the body, legs and forearms and had a bulging belly which made it look pregnant. It was also a distinctly unappetising grey colour, but at least it brought a touch of the surreal to this Jacobean revenge tragedy, an aspect which most other directors inexplicably leave out!!!

It was large, this carcass, and was certainly meant to be heavy, because the Duchess was having some trouble shifting it. She stopped for a breather half way across the diagonal, and around this time two men appeared at the back: from their appearance and the dog-collar/golfing outfit combo, I deduced these were her brothers. They stayed there, looking at her and not offering to help as she dragged the carcass to the back right corner of the stage. There she rested again, and finally attached a rope to the body somewhere. After this, she saw her brothers, and that was when they launched into the play itself, albeit not the actual opening scene: “Sister, I have a suit to you” began this version. They then argued with her, the brothers insisting that she must not marry again, but without giving much in the way of reasons other than the family honour. She protested that she had no intention to marry, but they were doubtful, believing that she might easily be persuaded by the deceits and trickery of the court. I couldn’t hear all of the Duchess’ dialogue – when her back was turned to me, the words weren’t clear enough – but I got the gist. She offered her hand for her brothers to kiss, suggesting that her status as a Duchess was higher than theirs, a potential cause for their jealousy?

She left, and the brothers spoke about using Bosola to spy on their sister. The Cardinal didn’t want to be involved and left his brother Ferdinand to arrange matters. Bosola was reluctant to do the brothers’ dirty work, but finally succumbed to the attraction of having a job, any job. The “gold” which Ferdinand gave Bosola was paper money, and then Bosola was left alone to deliver a longish diatribe against something or other – I wasn’t entirely clear about this. There were many very short scenes throughout this version of the play, where people would come on, say a few lines, then leave again, only to return for another few lines half a minute later. This made the opening rather choppy, and I felt I wasn’t really getting to grips with the characters or the severely truncated story at this time.

The next phase was a sports workout. The male courtiers of the Duchess’ court came on and began to do various choreographed exercise movements, accompanied by heavy metal music. The carcass was raised up at this point, until it was vertical with just the stumps of its legs and neck resting on the ground. I thought it might be used as a punching bag, but I didn’t see anyone touch it at this time. The movements began to merge until all the men were doing the same routine, and then the Duchess, now in a light blue outfit with a tight skirt, came on at the back. Ferdinand arrived front right, and inadvertently blocked my view when he confronted the Duchess, who had come to stand centre stage with her men grouped behind her. I didn’t see much sign of the men protecting her when her brother became abusive, as had been mentioned during the pre-show, but perhaps I missed it from my angle.

When her brother left, the Duchess dismissed her men with a wave of her hand, and her female servant, Cariola, came on. She pulled a bed out from under the front platform, having to tug at it a bit to manoeuvre it round the carcass, and pushed it to the front of the stage. It was a double bed with a cover and two thin pillows, and Cariola, after a bit of chat, left the Duchess alone on it. She was soon joined by Antonio, who demonstrated his difference from the courtiers by wearing a shirt, tie and glasses, and speaking in a North-eastern accent. This was the wooing scene, and it was clear each of them wanted the other, but there were all sorts of difficulties on both sides when it came to expressing that. He ended up sitting on the bed while she put the wedding ring on his finger, and was finally persuaded to become her husband. There was a laugh when he jumped in alarm at Cariola’s entrance, but she was only bringing a tea-light to illuminate their marriage vows. She lit it, they knelt on the bed to say the relevant lines, and then Cariola blew out the candle when the Duchess stated they were man and wife.

Something else that was mentioned during the pre-show was a pregnancy bump. With the ceremony over, Antonio left the women alone, while the Duchess sank to the floor in apparent ecstasy. Cariola helped her undress, revealing the body suit, and brought on the pregnancy bump, putting it on the Duchess very tenderly. This was a lovely way to show the passage of time and the natural consequence of the marriage, and it was accompanied by some gentle chiming chords from the musicians.

After the pregnant Duchess left, Cariola was tidying up when Bosola came on at the back. He did a bit of swinging from the bars – trying to keep up with the other men, presumably – and then made a really vicious verbal attack on Cariola for wearing make-up. He was already establishing himself as a most unpleasant character, and this #METOO moment didn’t help. Given his role as a spy, he was keen to find out what was going on with the Duchess, suspecting that she was pregnant. He informed us that he would test her out, and I can only assume that the apricot trick was popular at the time as a way of checking a woman’s degree of gravidity. He took an apricot out of his pouch and tossed it to a woman in the front row before offering another one to the Duchess when she came on. She went mad over it, and soon took a big bite. He then informed her that they had been placed in horse dung to ripen them quicker, and soon after that she began to feel unwell, rushing off crying, “I fear I am undone”. Bosola did warn the lady in the front row not to eat the fruit he’d given her, which was nice of him, and gave us all a rare chuckle.

To cover the risk of discovery, the Duchess put about that she had been robbed. They called on the officers of the court, who were still dressed in their gym clothes, and told them the story. Hearing this, they agreed to lock all the gates. The scenes were really short now, and I lost track of the plot a bit, but I caught up when Bosola produced a birth chart, which he’d either picked up when Antonio dropped it or lifted from Antonio’s pocket. He read it out to us. It was dated 1504: this brought a laugh from the audience when he added, “that’s this year”. With this confirmation that the Duchess had produced a child, he headed off to inform the brothers.

A young woman came on now, and I had absolutely no idea who she was. She looked around for a bit, but it wasn’t till the Cardinal arrived that it became clear: although a married woman, she was the Cardinal’s mistress. Mind you, he didn’t treat her very well, forcing her onto the bed and almost raping her. Fortunately Ferdinand arrived with the birth chart, and the Cardinal was so distracted by this affront to their blood – royal blood of Aragon, apparently – that he failed to notice how dishonourable he was being himself. Even his anger couldn’t match Ferdinand, though – he was completely over-the-top in his jealous rage and his fantasies of what he wanted to do to his sister, and the Cardinal had difficulty reining him in.

With Ferdinand sitting on the bed, three young children came on and ran around a bit, letting us know that the secret marriage had produced more offspring. Antonio and his friend, Delio (as I learned from the text), chatted with each other, conveniently bringing us up to date as well. After they left, Ferdinand got off the bed, put his jacket on, and met up with Bosola again to learn the latest news. Bosola gave him the key to the Duchess’ private room, and they left the stage.

The young woman, whom I later discovered was called Julia, now sat on one of the orange seats back left and began singing. It was a gentle song at first, and as she sang, the Duchess and Antonio came into the bedroom and got into a smoochy dance together. This went on a bit too long in my view, but eventually the song became louder and faster, and towards the end of it others of the cast, dressed in black, crawled onto the back platforms for no good reason that I could see. I think they may have joined in the final chorus, but I’m not sure. The extra cast exited quickly when the song was over, and we were left with the Duchess, Antonio and Cariola in the bedroom, and Julia at the back.

Antonio was sent away while the Duchess got ready for bed – that’s the problem with secret marriages, no sleep-overs. The Duchess removed her wig, and was sitting on the bed when Antonio came back on to persuade Cariola to leave the Duchess alone for a bit. Unfortunately, Cariola agreed, leaving the way clear for Ferdinand to access the room from the back, and in the process overhear the Duchess speaking freely to Cariola and her husband, as she thought. Her comments were unequivocal and confirmed the brothers’ suspicions. He confronted her, and although he was angry, he didn’t do anything to her at this point.

I wasn’t entirely clear about the next bit. The Duchess arranged for Antonio to flee to Ancona, while she, to cover her involvement with him, falsely claimed that Antonio was the one who had stolen money from her. She summoned her men and asked for their opinions of Antonio. Most were happy to declare there was something wrong with the man, but Bosola disagreed with this assessment, arguing that Antonio was honest. For this support, the Duchess decided to trust Bosola with her secret, and told him that Antonio was her husband. He went along with the scheme to get the whole family safely away, and even suggested she make a pilgrimage to a place not far from Ancona, as a cover for her intended reunion with Antonio. Cariola was dubious, but the Duchess was pleased with the idea, and told them to prepare for an immediate departure.

Ferdinand and the Cardinal came on reading a letter from Bosola, giving them the information which they had been so keen to find. Loud music followed, as a group of men came on at the back, wearing hoodies and doing some ‘gang’ choreography. As they came forward, the Duchess appeared at the back with her children, Antonio, and Cariola. The Duchess came down to the rear part of the stage and was surrounded by the men who were dancing around her, threatening and yelling. She held her fists up as if to fight back, and finally shook them at the men, who ran off stage. End of music. She then sent Antonio and the elder boy off to Milan, while she kept the other two children and Cariola with her. While they left at the back, Bosola and two men came on at the front to take the Duchess away with them, with Ferdinand entering just in time to see it happening. And with a flash of the lights, we were at the interval.

So far, this wasn’t too bad. We were following it OK, though not getting all of the details, but the performances were mostly good within the limited scope of the severely trimmed script, and we were hopeful that the second half would build on that. How quickly we were disappointed. After the interval, Ferdinand came on brandishing a knife, and with loud music in the background, and several of the gang members around him, he worked himself up into a frenzy and stabbed the carcass right in the guts. Blood came out, though not too much at first, and he dipped his hands in it and went over to the bed, smearing the blood on the sheets while one of the men sang a gentle, slow song in a high-pitched voice. I have no idea what any of that was meant to convey, other than what we’d already learned in the first half.

Bosola arrived and reported to Ferdinand on how the Duchess was taking her imprisonment. The other men had left, and soon afterwards she appeared at the back, now wearing a long plain robe. I thought Ferdinand was promising that she would be meeting Antonio in the dark, but from the text it seems it was just Ferdinand himself, though with this ‘rearranged’ script, who knows? The lights were put out, and she found herself kissing a dead hand, which shocked her. The lights went back up, and hanging at the back were two bodies, or at least the skins from two bodies, one longer than the other. These were made of wax: Ferdinand had ordered them to be placed there to make his sister believe that her husband and son were dead. There was also a large pool of blood under the carcass now, and it continued to spread slowly over that corner of the stage during the rest of the performance.

The pool was undisturbed at this point, but as it was constantly in our field of view, we became fixated on how long it would stay that way, how far it would spread, how long it would be before it reached the edge of the stage, etc. So it’s no surprise that we completely lost track of the play for several minutes. The edge of the Duchess’ robe did touch the spreading gore briefly, but it was down to Ferdinand to walk straight through it and begin the gore-fest that was to come.

People had gone off and come on again, but when I rejoined the action the Duchess had come back on and was singing. Her voice was deeper than Julia’s and the song was another gentle one. More of the cast came on at the back, wearing ‘crazy’ clothes – this was the only reference I spotted to the mad people who were to surround the Duchess’ prison. They picked up the song and kept it going while the Duchess nearly fell off the bed (accidentally). Again, I have no idea what was intended with this stuff. The song eventually picked up tempo and stridency, but this was another interlude which went on far too long.

Cariola came on and the two women sat on the bed for an intimate conversation which reminded me very much of Emilia and Desdemona chatting on their final night alive (Othello). Bosola arrived, wearing a mask, and told the Duchess she was to die. Two men came down from the back and grabbed the women, while the singing grew slightly discordant to match the change in tone. The blood pool had spread to cover about one quarter of the stage by this time, and played its part in the murder of the Duchess. The two men put a rope around her neck, carefully contrived so that she was on a separate loop. As they pulled on either end, she fought back, eventually falling down and rolling in the blood pool, spreading it even further and smearing herself thoroughly. Then she came free from the rope, and getting on all fours she crawled to the bed and lay there while the men at the back carried on pulling. She stood up for a bit, but collapsed again as the men finally stopped, letting the rope go. (Much looking at watch by this time.)

Cariola was next. She fought hard, and there was more sprawling in the blood for all of them before she was finished off. Ferdinand came on at the back – don’t remember if the ‘mad’ folk were still there at this point – and Bosola took off his mask. The (dead) children were carried on, and then carried off. Bosola covered the Duchess’ face with a hanky, and then Ferdinand had the effrontery to complain that she’d been killed! He dismissed Bosola, who remained on stage after Ferdinand left and spotted that the Duchess was still alive (no sign of it as far as I could see). She did recover for a short while (more ‘borrowing’ from Othello) but died anyway.

Antonio and Delio appeared on the left balcony, with Antonio, knowing nothing of his wife’s death, hoping to negotiate a happy future for his whole family. Then the Cardinal, accompanied by a doctor and Bosola, checked up on Ferdinand who was seriously out of his mind and twitching a lot. He was down to his vest and trousers, well stained with blood. I didn’t get much out of this bit, but Julia did make a brief appearance. She returned after Ferdinand and Bosola were gone, and the Cardinal wanted her to swear to secrecy by kissing a book. I felt like shouting out to warn her, but I restrained myself. They were standing in the middle of the blood puddle for this bit, so naturally when the poison from the book was doing its work, she grappled with the Cardinal and they both ended up on the floor. The deaths were starting to cause laughter by now, though it was only in a few places.

By this time, the blood pond was spreading to both sides of the stage and almost as far forward as the bed. Bosola was sent to kill Antonio, but decided he would murder Ferdinand instead. (Good choice, just two hours too late.) Ferdinand came on and crossed the bloody floor to the bed to cradle his sister’s body. Antonio was back on the left balcony, there was some echoing stuff going on, then the Duchess got off the bed and slowly walked to the back and sat down on the platform. Ferdinand pushed the bed back under the platform. The Cardinal was praying somewhere, Bosola killed Antonio by mistake thinking he was Ferdinand, the Cardinal came on and was stabbed, but managed to crawl to the back to lie next to the Duchess. Ferdinand stabbed Bosola and Bosola killed Ferdinand, giving us one last laugh at his “O, I am gone”. Lights. The end (thankfully).

The youngsters in the audience were enthusiastic in their response, while the older members seemed to limit themselves to polite applause or none at all (I wasn’t the only one who held back). Steve noticed that the actors, apart from the Duchess herself, didn’t look too happy when taking their bows, but that’s often the case with these heavier dramas, so we’re not reading too much into that. But these gimmicky stagings have been unpopular with actors in the past, so perhaps we’re not alone in finding it overdone.

Joan Iyiola was very good as the Duchess: apart from the lack of clarity when her back was turned to us, she conveyed the Duchess’ strong personality very well. Amanda Hadingue was fine as Cariola, who did “not go gentle into that good night”, Nick Tennant was OK as Bosola and Paul Woodson a decent Antonio. Most of the performances lacked depth, although given the extremely shortened text, that’s not surprising. I assume a lot of these roles will develop over time, but I’m not sure if I will be checking this out for myself.

The singing was generally excellent, with several fine voices in the cast, but it was largely unnecessary to the story and often went on too long. The music was variable: the gentler parts were good, but the louder and more strident it became, the less it appealed.

The declared intention of showing an extremely masculine world was unsuccessful for me. I accept there were plenty of men around – for once Maria Aberg had chosen not to change the gender of any of the roles – but since most of the parts were severely cut, I didn’t get a sense of male dominance at all. Perhaps the imagery was weaker seen from our angle, perhaps it would have been better to have kept more of the original play: whatever the reason, I felt the Duchess was a strong character who was simply brought down by two extremely nasty men who happened to be her brothers. The masculinity or otherwise of that society played no part, in my view.

While this adaptation of Webster’s play will probably play well to the younger audiences, and does have some merits regardless of my objection to the blood, I would very much like to see a director tackle the challenge of a fuller version of the text. In the meantime, if Maria Aberg gets an itch to tackle another of Webster’s plays, I might well find myself giving it a miss.


P.S. (25/3/18) Speaking of itches, I found myself pondering this production for several days afterwards, along with some of the other recent productions we’ve seen and not enjoyed very much. I realised that there have been many instances when we were younger where directors have used ‘gimmicks’ to make a play more accessible to modern audiences. The example that springs most readily to mind is the Ferrari which was driven on to the stage by Tybalt (Hugh Quarshie) in Michael Bogdanov’s 1986 RSC production of Romeo And Juliet. As well as highlighting Tybalt’s machismo, we had the joy of seeing his baffled rage when Mercutio (Michael Kitchen) leapt onto the bonnet of the car during their fight. Since Tybalt was wielding a chain as his weapon, he was completely unable to attack Mercutio for fear of scratching the paintwork, and could only glower at him with pent-up fury. It was a lovely moment, and one which stands out in my mind long after I’ve forgotten almost everything else about that production.

And that’s one of the problems I have with ‘gimmicks’: it’s too easy to remember them rather than the performances or the interpretation of the play or anything else. While they help those of us less familiar with Shakespeare’s (and other writers’) work to enjoy a performance, there is a risk that they may block our appreciation of the finer points of the plays, and potentially lead to increasingly ‘dumbed-down’ versions of the classical repertoire. Steve and I have often commented in recent years after seeing productions of Jacobethan and other classical plays, that we would very much like to see them being done more fully, with a greater trust in the plays to engage an audience without being significantly reworked. It’s frustrating to see plays that are done so rarely presented in such a way that we can’t begin to assess their intrinsic merits (or otherwise) through the thick pall of directorial meddling.

There are a lot of issues involved in this, of course. The financial incentives to get younger people into the theatre are strong ones and have some merit, along with various initiatives to broaden theatre’s appeal across a wider range of social groups. In addition, the rise of Netflix and other streaming services has led to a fragmentation of artistic influences, not to mention the range of genres readily available in music and other art forms. Given our age, it’s not surprising if we perhaps miss some of the references which are common currency amongst younger age groups or even older people who are more tuned in to these areas. (We see plenty of TV, but haven’t accessed Netflix yet, while I last listened to pop music back in the early 1980s. And as for films…)

So while I still have reservations about some of the choices made by the younger generation of directors, I’ve decided it’s important to cut everyone some slack, including myself. I can’t expect to get every allusion, every in-joke, every subtlety in every performance or production. I still have my own response to things, and perhaps I’ll consider the wider issues a bit more when writing my notes (or not: only time will tell). But I still wonder: back in 1986 the whole audience probably got the point about the Ferrari. Would that be true, or even possible, with some modern directorial choices?

© 2018 Sheila Evans at

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