Review: The Duchess of Malfi at the RSC | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: The Duchess of Malfi at the RSC

Culture critic Holly Reaney reviews a 'sinister and unpredictable' production of The Duchess of Malfi at the RSC.

Well, that was an excessive amount of blood.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned - there were signs scattered around the foyer. However, being warned that we were potentially sitting in ‘the splatter zone’ when we collected our tickets did come as a bit of a shock. Our nervous anticipation increased all the more so when, in the interval, the stewards started handing blankets out to the front row in order to protect their clothing from the blood. If you are going to see a John Webster play, you know the body count will be high and the deaths will be gruesome. It is his trademark – nobody gets out of a Webster play alive. However, in the RSC’s latest production, director Maria Aberg took Webster’s sardonic play to the extreme.

'It is worth coming to see The Duchess Of Malfi for Iyiola’s performance alone.'

Aberg is no stranger to the RSC nor Webster. Her most recent adaptation of Doctor Faustus in 2016 engaged with a new perspective of dual casting, whilst her adaption of Webster’s White Devil as part of the RSC’s Roaring Girls Season in 2014 received both popular and critical acclaim. The appeal to Webster’s plays is varied. His work promises the visceral narratives, bleak plots, and high-strung action, though Aberg’s particular draw is that the work is ‘unapologetically political and incredibly theatrical’. It is the theatricality of his work that Aberg draws to the forefront with a stripped back stage, elaborate and threatening dance routines, and the hanging of a bull-like carcass above the stage to herald the forthcoming butchery. Throughout the RSC, Aberg’s name has come to represent a mark of quality and she delivered once again. Working alongside designer Naomi Dawson, Aberg creates a metaphorical space which never embodies a singular location. Many scenes layer on top of each other, creating layers of tension and friction which echo throughout the play.

Paul Woodson and Joan Iyiola as Antonio and The Duchess. Photo by Helen Maybanks (c) RSC.


The play serves to create an atmosphere of oppression and abuse experienced by its female characters at the hands of their male counterparts - in this male-dominated environment, the women have no place to hide. Joan Iyiola, who previously played Zanche in Aberg’s 2016 production of White Devil, returns to the Swan Stage with a passionate ferocity as the Duchess of Malfi. Iyiola owned the stage, baring a strong femininity paired with a cold defiance and strength which is rarely seen in Jacobean theatre. It is worth coming to see The Duchess Of Malfi for Iyiola’s performance alone.

A beautiful showcase of female friendship and loyalty... a powerful sight to behold

Aberg is known for baring all on stage for the audience - the progression of the pregnant Duchess is shown as Cariola (Amanda Hadingue) helps her into her prosthetic bump with grace, a deeply poignant moment that, whilst being a happy moment on stage, is heavily symbolic of the sealing of her fate, as well as the adding of another inevitable body to the death toll. Hadingue reflects the energy and power that Iyiola generates. Together the maid and duchess work seamlessly, at times as if they were one, in a beautiful showcase of female friendship and loyalty. It is a powerful sight to behold, one woman stepping forward to die with another. The final woman of the piece is Julia played by Aretha Ayeh. Scenes of her rape by The Cardinal (Chris New) are performed center stage and are uncomfortable to watch, particularly when he forcefully reaches his hand up her skirt, ignoring her shouts. Though a small role, Ayeh was deeply affecting, particularly in her later singing of Nina Simone’s I Put A Spell On You which felt hauntingly reminiscent of the play’s exploration of the male possession of women.

The antagonist to Iyiola’s incredible performance of the Duchess is Alexander Cobb’s Ferdinand. His serpentine portrayal of the acerbically jealous brother of the Duchess is utterly terrifying. He’s a quiet yet viscerally strong figure, whose physical and mental assertion of power over his sister is at times difficult to watch, particularly as he sinisterly wields a knife to her throat. He perfectly encapsulates Ferdinand’s descent into madness, covered in his twin sister’s blood he frolics in the bloodied stage before attempting to find solace in his brother’s arms. Cobb embodies the unpredictability of Ferdinand in an extremely diverse performance, an excellent showcase of Cobb’s wide-ranging talents.

All lights off and background music silenced, it is in this darkness that Iyiola and Cobb come into their own. Iyiola and Cobb share a moment that begins tender, waivers on forgiveness, then quickly manifests into gruesomeness. The darkness that envelops the stage and auditorium creates an uncomfortably sinister atmosphere which ripples throughout the audience as each member shares in the Duchess’s vulnerability. In turn, each member is assaulted when the lights come up and the reveal the reality. Cobb’s savagery paired with Iyiola’s broken dignity and passionate performance make this a completely beguiling performance.

A fascinatingly dark performance, sinister and unpredictable...unlike anything else you will ever see on the RSC stage

However, I must return to the main challenge of the performance, that of the blood. No clever blood bag tricks - Aberg’s play is beyond this, and the carcass of a cow, pulled on by Malfi in the first scene, hangs over the stage until its stomach is split, oozing blood in a river which continues to trickle throughout. As the body count rises, the blood gets darker. However, there was so much! Three-quarters of the stage was saturated and smeared in blood and the actors struggled to walk through it without slipping. Furthermore, their squelching shoes were at times off-putting, particularly when they could still be heard off stage. I understand how the blood being spread comes to represent that effect of the murders on each individual character, and how the innocent Duchess’s blood is quite literally on everyone’s hands. However, towards the end of the performance the vast quantities of blood felt farcical as the actors struggled to move across the stage - what initially felt original and effective became ridiculous and the audience quickly became numb to it. Listening to the conversation upon leaving the auditorium was more revolved around the practicalities of ‘How do they clear all that up?’ rather than the incredible story and very strong acting.  It is a shame that such a great performance got upstaged by a lot of blood.

Aberg’s The Duchess Of Malfi is a fascinatingly dark performance, sinister and unpredictable, it is unlike anything else you will ever see on the RSC stage.

The Duchess Of Malfi runs until 3rd August 2018 at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.


15th March 2018 at 9:00 am

Images from

Helen Maybanks (Copyright RSC)