August 3: Duchess of Malfi at Stratford-upon-Avon

Joan Iyiola, Alexander Cobb, he Duchess of Malfi

We made it to the closing night of The Duchess of Malfi at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Judith got a seat, and I had standing room not far away.

In many ways, a stunning production. The Duchess was played by the electrifying Joan Iyiola, at the farthest remove from the passive victim that

Nicolas Tennant, Joan IyiolaThe Duchess of Malfi

the role may suggest. Alexander Cobb and Chris New are the two venomous brothers who torment her for secretly marrying her steward Antonio (Paul Woodson). Alexander Cobb as Ferdinand, in particular, draws a fascinating portrait of a nerdy scholar capable of the utmost depravity. Nicolas Tennant as Bosola, the reluctant instrument of their designs, finds all the psychological corners and niches in that fascinating character. The acting (everyone) in short is what brings us over an ocean to see.

The Duchess of Malfi

And there’s more. Maybe too much more, but . . . I’m still wrestling with it all. The stage is literally (not figuratively, literally) bathed in blood. There is a huge black carcass of a bull in one corner of the stage. In the first act, the Duchess hauls on a chain to hoist it vertical; in the second act, Ferdinand cuts it open and red, gooey, sloshy blood gradually covers the stage. As the action progresses, the actors walk and slither through it, roll in it and die covered in it. Excessive, yes. Distracting sometimes. Overly simplistic. And yet, though I should have reacted negatively, I didn’t. Sure, go ahead, my psyche said. Bathe in gore. Let’s do this thing! And it helped that sometimes the actors would stand up, reminding us that this is just theatre, folks.

Joan Iyiola, The Duchess of Malfi

There are other concepts that were less successful. Someone decided that the key to this play is machismo and misogyny. In case we don’t figure this out for ourselves, the action is set in a gymnasium, and troops of muscular men do gymnastic dances now and then. All this seems like a Good Idea that ends up not adding anything of value. Webster’s play has a claustrophobic nastiness that does not need shows of excessive manliness. The grunty, sweaty dances were fun in their way, but didn’t really contribute.

Anyhow, caveats aside, a great night in the theatre.

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