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The Duchess Of Malfi
The Swan Theatre
MARIA ABERG’S 2014 production of John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The White Devil demonstrated that she is at home with that writer’s blood-soaked, nightmare world. There is certainly no shortage of blood in her treatment of Webster’s great companion piece The Duchess of Malfi.
The final scenes involve the cast wading around and rolling in a lake of blood to such an extent that many in the audience must have worried about the RSC laundry bills.
Whereas her earlier production reminded us of an Italianate US gangster fiefdom, this slimmed-down version of Webster’s other major tragedy has no sense of any social context in which the inane cruelties take place.
The focus of the bare set is the hanging headless torso of some elephantine creature and a bed serving for sex and slaughter gives nothing else away.
Apart from some frenetic choreographed hakas, where menacing macho males threaten the defiant Duchess, the production leading up to its gory finale could have been a radio drama.
Like the rest of the cast wandering through this inchoate hell, Joan Iyiola’s Duchess, whose brothers respond to her marrying against their will by torturing her before killing her and her children, seems lost.
Only Nicolas Tennant’s malcontent Bosola, an efficient murderer whose moment of remorse rings hollowly, fits well into this shapeless Armageddon.
Webster certainly saw “the skull beneath the skin.”
But his tragedies embody a fierce satiric strain that can shock his audience into confronting a moral challenge to the kind of world which we see every day on our screens.
Here the shock is everything, the questioning goes begging.
Runs until August 3, box office: rsc.org.uk
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