I recently had the pleasure of attending the RSC’s production of The Duchess of Malfi in Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s taken me a few days to get around to writing this review only because I wanted to reread the original text first, but now that’s all done and I am eager to share my thoughts on this rather controversial play.
A Bit of Context
Title: The Duchess of Malfi.
Playwright: John Webster.
First Performed: 1613/1614.
My Edition: 2007, Oxford UP.
Length: 2.5 hours / 131 pages.
John Webster wasn’t hugely famous during his lifetime, but that’s not particularly surprising, given that one of his competitors was none other than William Shakespeare. Nevertheless, Webster’s plays are nowadays treated with a fair amount of respect, both The Duchess of Malfi and his earlier play, The White Devil, considered to be excellent examples of what a tragedy should be.
The White Devil was generally rejected by critics; at the time of performance, Webster referred to his audience members as “asses” who would always prefer a “new book” to a “good book”. He may have actually had a point, though, as the play was originally performed at the Red Bull Theatre, which wasn’t exactly known for well-educated audiences. It may have simply been that The White Devil was too complex at the time, for The Duchess of Malfi, which was performed at a theatre associated with a much higher class of attendees, was reviewed extremely positively.
Interestingly, though, The Duchess of Malfi would never have reached this audience if it hadn’t been for Webster’s number one competitor. Whilst he was writing the play, Shakespeare and the Kings Men were performing Henry VIII. During one of these performances, an onstage cannon was misfired, which caused the famous Globe Theatre to burn to the ground. Whilst, from a historical point of view, this was devastating, it actually earned Webster his fame. The Kings Men, who had been hired to perform The Duchess of Malfi straight after Henry VIII, were moved to the Blackfriars Theatre, which is where the play met with its sympathetic audience.
The plot of The Duchess of Malfi revolves around a rich family living in Italy. The Duchess, whom the play centres around, has recently lost her husband and is warned by her two brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal (he is given no other name in the play), that she cannot marry again. They worry that, if she does, she will damage their reputations along with her own. This is the reason they give, anyway; in reality, they are probably worried that, by marrying again, she will be giving away more of their fortune.
So, the Duchess decides to get married anyway. Her argument is that she is still young and that she has a right to raise children, but she may also want to simply defy her brothers. She chooses Antonio, her steward, and they are married in secret. Her brothers don’t suspect anything until the Duchess’ belly begins to grow.
They hire a man named Bosola to spy on the Duchess. Eager for potential rewards, Bosola offers the Duchess a fruit known to instigate labour. After eating the fruit, the Duchess runs offstage complaining of stomach pains. Bosola is suspicious, and, eventually, discovers that the Duchess has given birth to a baby boy.
He sends word to the Duchess’ brothers who condemn their sister and instruct Bosola to discover who the baby’s father is. A large portion of the play is taken up with this question, during which the couple have two more children together.
The Duchess fears that Bosola is growing suspicious of Antonio’s relationship with her, and so accuses Antonio of theft. She believes that this will trick Bosola, as he would not believe her capable of incriminating her own husband. For a while, the trick works; Antonio is banished, but he is still alive. Bosola then admits that he greatly admired Antonio and that he was very sad to see him leave. The Duchess believes his sorrow and, moronically, tells him that Antonio is the father.
She and the children meet with Antonio in exile, but Bosola has already written to her brothers. The Duchess and her two younger children are imprisoned in her palace whilst Antonio keeps their eldest son safe. Ferdinand then tricks the Duchess into believing that he has butchered Antonio and her children, creating wax bodies to insight a form of insanity in her. Not long after, he instructs Bosola to strangle the Duchess, and she, along with her two youngest children, are murdered.
Antonio, meanwhile, has been summoned to meet with the brothers at the Cardinal’s palace. There, Bosola, Ferdinand and the Cardinal incite what can only be described as a bloodbath. All of these lords are reduced to murder, Ferdinand, wracked with guilt after the death of the Duchess, even murdering his own brother. It is dark, gruesome and undeniably a tragedy. The only relief is the return of the Duchess’ eldest son. He walks on stage and the surviving characters, including a close friend of Antonio’s, swear to protect the child in honour and in memory of his parents.
The RSC did a fantastic job of modernising this play. It was horrifying, exciting and slightly disturbing which, in my opinion, is what The Duchess of Malfi is all about. There was a lot to it, and they made a fair few changes to the story, but what I most want to talk about is their focus on gender, visual effects, and the ending of the play.
From the very beginning of the performance, it was evident that we, as an audience, were spying on a memory of the past. The set took the form of a sports pitch, which painted a picture of both the play and of Jacobean England. There was also a disfigured, upside down bull in the corner of the stage. This shadowed over the entire performance and, like the sports pitch, became a constant reminder that the Duchess was a lone woman in a distinctly masculine world. The first suggestion of this isolation was a visual one; ethnic differences separated the Duchess from the rest of the cast, both her gender and appearance isolating her from her fellow characters.
These feelings are only intensified as the play begins. In the original version, the first scene depicts Antonio discussing his travels, yet in this version, the Duchess is the first character on stage. She walks in completely alone and sets about attacking the bull. She wrestles with it, attempting to remove it from the stage. Ultimately, however, she fails. This reflects her struggle with the masculine world around her. She fights with her brothers and their many spies, but, when it really comes down to it, she is just one person, and she’s too weak to push the bull from the stage.
Her weakness is emphasised by the musical numbers that interject the narrative. The dancers, who represent the soldiers in the play, create a distinctly masculine image. They swing from bars that relate to a gym environment and overcrowd the Duchess. Later on in the play, Julia, who becomes romantically involved with the Cardinal, sings a solo, which allows the audience to focus on the Duchess and the power of women. Even at this moment, however, the song is disturbed by the entrance of the soldiers. They creep from various angles and emphasise the idea that this is a masculine world; even when the Duchess believes she has outwitted her brothers, they, along with the masculine establishment, can overwhelm her.
There are many secrets in The Duchess of Malfi, the biggest of these being the identity of the Duchess’ husband. It’s all about treachery and betrayal, as Bosola serves only himself and Ferdinand, in his madness, murders his own brother. A visual element used by the RSC helped accentuate these themes, and this was the Duchess’ wig.
Throughout the first act, the Duchess was not seen without this wig; it made her seem taller and thus more powerful, but as we entered the second act, the wig was removed. She physically became smaller as she became less powerful. Yet the wig represented more than a loss of power; the Duchess also lost her secrets. In the first act, she and Antonio were kept safe by the secret of his identity, but once she reveals this secret, she must also reveal her true appearance; in other words, she has nothing else to hide.
If you’ve heard anything about this performance before reading my review, then you will be expecting me to mention something else here, so let me indulge you. There was a certain visual effect used in this performance that is not easy to forget. The bull that I mentioned earlier served not only to represent masculinity in the play, but also to be the cause of a huge amount of fake blood.
At the start of the second act, the brothers stab the bull, which triggers a small amount of blood to seep out from underneath it. This spreads across the stage during the act and a small amount of blood soon becomes a rather large amount of blood. During the final scene, every actor is dripping with fake blood, having slid and splashed around in it for much of the performance. It’s messy and actually a little distracting; the front row of the audience even had blankets handed out to them to help protect their clothing.
It was a powerful effect but, as I said, perhaps a little too distracting. The best bit about it had to be how the blood crept forwards throughout the performance. By the end, however, it was just out of control, which may reflect the chaos on stage, but is a little unnecessary. Do not misunderstand me; I really liked the addition to the play, because it made The Duchess of Malfi just as shocking to us, as a modern audience, as it would have been to Webster’s original audience. Nevertheless, I think there was just a little too much of it; that’s all. It was powerful at the beginning, but people were actually laughing towards the end – they weren’t watching the deaths; they were just watching the blood coat the actors’ clothes and spray out into the audience.
Up until this point, I’ve been mainly positive about the RSC’s interpretation of The Duchess of Malfi. I liked the addition of the dances and the music, and I thought that the body of the bull brought a lot to my reception of the play. Yet there was one thing that I wasn’t quite happy with, not because it wasn’t creative, and not because I didn’t understand the statement that it made, but because it didn’t make sense.
As I mentioned earlier, Webster’s original play ended with the return of the Duchess’ eldest son. He appeared on stage and the remaining characters swore to protect him. This provided an element of hope in what was otherwise an extremely bleak ending. Similar appearances can be seen in some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as, in King Lear, where Edgar promises to provide new hope for his kingdom. The RSC, however, decided to get rid of this moment. They removed the son’s entrance and instead ended the play with the numerous bodies that remained on the stage.
This in itself could be quite a powerful message. By removing hope, the directors of the play plunged its audience into feelings of despair and uncertainty. This is a powerful effect and actually summarises The Duchess of Malfi quite nicely. BUT and this is a big BUT: the story didn’t make sense! Antonio leads his son offstage, and then he is never seen, or mentioned, ever again. No one asks where he is; no one even mentions him. It is as if the directors are encouraging us to forget that he ever existed, but he did… and then he didn’t. It was, unfortunately, a frustrating ending to a fantastic performance.
I may simply be being ignorant here, but I can’t seem to find any sort of age rating for the RSC’s performance of The Duchess of Malfi. This, in my opinion, is pretty bad. I seem to remember a rather small-looking child sitting opposite me as I watched the play. This seemed a little strange because if this was a film being shown at cinemas, it should have been certificated as an 18. It wasn’t only the fake blood that did it; there were sexual assaults, dead children, and more violence than I can even list.
It was a very adult performance and the RSC didn’t hold much back. Personally, that made me enjoy it all the more, because it made the play shocking. As I mentioned before, Webster’s original audience would have found the play shocking, due to the simple fact that, in it, people die on stage. Nowadays, we, as a population, are more accustomed to brutality, so to reach the shock that would have been experienced at the time, performances need to be even more brutal.
I really enjoyed this play; I appreciated how it wasn’t just a retelling, but actually brought something more to the story. Other than the rather frustrating ending, there was nothing that seemed out of place compared to the original story, even though it was modernised through song and dance. The actors outdid themselves and the overall experience was fantastic. I saw it in the Swan Theatre, which is rather small, and this made the actions on stage all the more gruesome because I felt less like an audience member, and more like a part of the play. It really was a great piece of drama and probably the best live performance that I have ever witnessed.