Culture writer Holly Reaney interviews The Duchess of Malfi actress Joan Iyiola, discussing the RSC, representation in the industry and strong women

Written by Holly Reaney
Last updated
Images by Helen Maybanks

Returning to the RSC for her third season, Joan Iyiola stars in the title role as The Duchess in the female-led production of The Duchess Of Malfi.  This adaption doesn’t shy away from raw savagery of the narrative, as it explores the strong, defiant women trying to survive in an inherently misogynist world. Directed by Maria Aberg the production is an arresting performance, showcasing incredible acting and a lot of blood. Joan Iyiola speaks to Redbrick about returning to the RSC, The Duchess of Malfi and empowering of women both in the play and in the acting world.

Female ferocity and resilience in the face of a threateningly violent masculine environment is a key theme of the play.

It is the vast quantities of blood that has been dominating the discussion regarding the RSC’s latest production of The Duchess Of Malfi. Over the course of the show’s six month run, it is estimated that over 3,000 litres will be used. It is a shocking sight to behold.

Iyiola jokes ‘We started to call the blood Marlon Brando, because we knew that it was a thing that everyone was talking about but we didn’t know when it was going to arrive.’ However, throughout the performance the blood stands for more than simply a gore-fest. In practice, the play is rooted in the visceral components of the text, used as a tool for the actors to discover the agency within their characters in the early days of rehearsal back in December. ‘We looked at how we could explore violence told through blood. We paired up with one another and explored dropping blood each other. It ended up being quite intimate to watch. For us, that was a big eye-opened in terms of what we wanted to create within the play. We realised that some of the most powerful elements could be told through the blood rather than through the violence.’

ultimately the end image of the show had to be the Duchess in defiance.

Female ferocity and resilience in the face of a threateningly violent masculine environment is a key theme of the play. These women are subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse which is performed with such a passion that it is difficult to witness.

‘We wanted to be very mindful of the violence that happens to women on the stage. We really questioned what we were saying with the violence and the strength and struggle that the women went through. Rendering such violence upon the stage is always a creative challenge, particularly when trying to retain a dignity and inner strength of the victims. The opportunity to explore the Duchess which the blood provided, was vital in the conceptualising of the dramatic climax of the play, both in the visualisation but also in her performance of that scene.’

‘Regarding my death, that was a big conversation from start to finish. We know that the character is strangled but how you do that on stage is very different thing. We knew that we were going to have a literal version that was then going to push into something more abstract. I personally love what we ended up with because you get this euphoric moment where we get the person that was as opposed to someone just being thrown around on stage. The blood journey was quite a process for me in particular because we had to ask ‘what we are saying about this woman?’ and ultimately the end image of the show had to be the Duchess in defiance.’

However, there is so much more to this passionately visceral performance than its body count and blood. Webster’s play was written in 1612, but Iyiola feels passionately that there is a desperate need to tell this story today.

‘I think with any classical play we must ask ourselves why we are doing it, and it needs to accessible. We can’t make classical work that doesn’t speak to the people that are watching it. There’s a wonderful director David Mann, who’s just stepped down from the Young Vic, and he always says ‘it’s about making the right shows for the right audiences’ and I absolutely think that is something that really sat with me whilst we were doing the show. Now more than ever, bizarrely for a play that was written hundreds of years ago, we’re in a real turning point, I believe, in how we deal with gender and how the two genders operate with one another. And we are in a world of toxic masculinity, we absolutely are! If you look at people in power and how that’s trickling down, and then look to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, and the equal representation of actresses.’

‘We are in a world where there is revolution happening in terms of that female voice. Meghan Markle said ‘it’s not that women need to find a voice, they have a voice. It’s just people need to start listening to it.’ and that’s what we are slowly moving into. I think the duchess beautifully represents that. At no point do you ever suspect that the Duchess doesn’t have a voice, but the issue is that she hasn’t been listened to with regards to the way she wants to live her life. The more and more that this is being highlighted, we see people start to say no more and no longer. It’s really bizarre because when I was in rehearsal and didn’t quite know what I was thinking or feeling but I would say that the Duchess is like this shining light that had been put in this black box that is closing in on her. Despite what everyone else is doing, it’s like she’s ricocheting these bullets out of the box, so there are these escapes of light that are coming through the black box. And ultimately it crushes her in the end before she can break the box.’

‘But what I think it’s saying for me is that we are at the stage where we believe that we should also keep pushing forward to the point where that black box is no longer pushing in on that person and that their light will shine through and that we will listen to them. What I’ve loved about exploring the character is her joy. I think so often when she’s been played she’s the good virtuous one and she’s sort of put on this pedestal. But she’s flawed too, she decides to marry Antonio and she sort of knows the world that she’s entering into. She rather enjoys the game until the game changes its course, so what I really loved was showing that pattern as opposed to a relic, which is how we so often see women as either at one end of the spectrum or the other. I think that’s another reason why this version of Duchess of Malfi speaks for today because it shows a woman in her fullest form and that is what was written so beautifully. You see so many aspects of her and even today, when we look on screen, we don’t see these women.’

We are in a world where there is a revolution happening in terms of that female voice.

This is not the first time that Iyiola has performed one of John Webster’s violent tragedies, nor it is the first time she has been under the direction of the inspiring Maria Aberg. In 2014, Iyiola took the role of the servant Zanche in the RSC’s critically acclaimed performance of White Devil. I asked her what it’s like to suddenly find herself centre stage, at the heart of a similarly toxic narrative.

‘It’s glorious. It’s a wonderful opportunity. I’ve been on a real journey personally. As a woman in the industry and in society generally, you’re so used to navigating your role and the role of others who may be in a more central position and here, I was told that it was absolutely okay to relish the experience. You don’t realise in yourself that the world you live in has asked you to operate in such a way that you perhaps haven’t got as much choice over. So, when you come to lead a company, in a lead role playing a character whose story is at the centre of the narrative, it was a new thing. It was something that I hadn’t explored so much, particularly in a rehearsal environment.’

Iyiola’s character is the beating heart of the play, and the Duchess is a difficult character to embody. For a play written by a sixteenth century, white male playwright, the Duchess is an unusually complex and dimensional woman, fuelled by a passion and vitality. She becomes a symbol for women who are fighting for the freedom to live their own lives not to be governed by others.

‘It was a liberating experience because you end up going ‘This is how it should be more often that we’re seeing’. So, in this version if we can hopefully celebrate that so that this discussion can continue about producing more parts like this for women and about more women in other industries taking a central role. Women that can be all of the things: powerful, and sexy, and feminine and a bit of a trickster, and to have all of the wit, and also to be a flawed human. These are the women that we know and that we see, so being the afforded the opportunity to play a role like this reminded me of that.’

This version of Duchess of Malfi speaks for today because it shows a woman in her fullest form and that is what was written so beautifully.

It is the strong of a woman which fuels the heart of this story, and it is the skills of women which bring it to life. Despite having a heavily masculine cast, only three female actors, behind the scenes has the opposite makeup. The power behind the show is predominantly female, directed by the incredible Maria Aberg. The whole construction of the show has a wonderful gender balance which gives the performance a deep complexity which is really refreshing to see.

‘You’ve got the wonderful masculine energy that you see on stage and then the female creatives who, perhaps see the play slightly different because they’ve naturally got a different lived experience. Uniting the two together you find a balance. No-one is ever asking for one to be more dominant than the other. One of the things I was so in awe of, was how beautifully easy they were working with one another. And that definitely comes from Maria steering the way because she really respected everyone’s expertise. You’ve got the female light and sound designers [Natasha Chivers and Claire Windsor], Ayse [Tashkiran] the movement director, Naomi Dawson the creative designer and you’ve just got them flying because there’s nobody trying to pull any control over them whether it’s conscious on subconscious, which sometimes does happen. It was just people doing what they do best, and as a result it was thrilling to be around. When it came to the technical rehearsal, it was about the blood obviously and understanding that, but it was the easiest tech I’ve ever been a part of. There were no raised voices, nobody was shouting at one another, and I don’t want to say that it was because they were all women but maybe there may well be something in that, perhaps.’

In telling a story which is so deeply orientated around the narrative of a strong, defiant woman, Iyiola shared the powerful women were who inspired her, and those who’s great inner strength and passion she harnessed in forming basis for her characterisation of the Duchess.

‘They come from all sorts. But because she’s arrive today, my Mother. My mother is a strong Nigerian woman and in Nigeria it’s the matriarch who rules the day. I’ve grown up with strong figure-heads. I just love women who are authentic within themselves, and stay true to that, and perhaps they don’t care what other people think about them. For people like that I think Ursa Kit is a wonderful example of a woman who made no compromise in a male world, and there are people like Maya Angelou, who I just adore and whenever I’m in a moment of struggle, I just look to her writing and her words and it just absolutely empowers you. We’ve got amazing women around the world in politics today, who are really coming through. Particularly in the rise of Trump you’ve got the more powerful I believe, rise of women and more female politicians than ever before. At the RSC you’ve got women like Ericka Wyman doing just amazing work without asking for any praise or acknowledgement, it’s just happening.’

I absolutely love the line ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’. It is phenomenal because it is a state of knowing who you are.

It was at the RSC in 2014 that Iyiola received her first professional acting role in Boris Godunov, The Orphan of Zhao and A Life of Galileo. On returning to the RSC in 2016 and now again in 2018, she reflects upon the changes that she has seen both in terms of the stories being told, the range of casts and creatives whose work is being showcased and the handling of conversations. Iyiola reveals one particular experience which, though seemingly small, reflects a significant change the RSC has made in diversifying but also highlights the worrying fact that it is not the norm throughout all theatres.

‘I have never had anyone on any job I’ve done whether on stage or screen not even ask about the right colour underwear to provide me with, and on this show, it just happened. They [Naomi Dawson, costume designer, and Jackie Orton, costume supervisor] knew about the brands that I’ve had to find out for myself because no-one ever told me about them. My knee pads, my pregnancy bump, my underwear, all these things were, without conversation provided in my skin colour. It sounds like a small thing, but it is absolutely massive. In terms of hair and makeup, they understand my African Hair, I’ve got a hair stylist who comes in and who specialises in afro hair. These are things that most actress of my ethnicity, skin colour and hair-type have to struggle with in ways that I can only describe as horror stories, and here it was just all glossed over. And what that means, is that I could do my job. I could do what I was here to do instead of having to fight people to sort of understand what your role in the world is and what your existence in the world is, all you want to do is your art. I think on of the reasons we’ve been able to achieve a show that I’m so proud of, is that I was able to do my job.’

Concluding the interview, I asked Iyiola what her favourite lines from the play are. Her excited response was that nobody had asked her that question yet, and then quickly gave me three lines that she loved and that provide a beautiful cross section of the play.

‘I absolutely love the line ‘I am Duchess of Malfi still’. It is phenomenal because it is a state of saying who you are. It’s knowing thy self, that’s why I think it’s an incredible line. It’s just staying ‘you can do anything to me but you can’t take away who I am’ I think that’s just so beautiful. One line that makes me chuckle: ‘when I wax grey, I shall have all the court powder their hair with arras to be like me’. It tickles me every night. I think there’s something so wonderfully at ease and joyful. I don’t think it’s an aristocratic thing, it’s more like the sort of thing a young child would say. It’s imagination and fantasy. I really love how that exists within this world. And finally, I love the lines when Bosela says ‘Doth not death fright you?’ and she replies ‘Who would be afraid on ’t, knowing to meet such excellent company in th’ other world?’. I think it’s a really beautiful connection. I’m not particularly religious but I love that as a comeback to someone who is trying to force a particular emotion on you. It’s a really astute comeback that is not matched in the usual way that a man might expect you to respond to it. I think it offsets Bosela quite a lot.’


You can see Joan Iyiola as the Duchess in the RSC’s production of the Duchess of Malfi in Stratford-upon-Avon until the 3rd August.


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