The Duchess of Malfi
THE DUCHESS enters dragging a burden which looks like a soft, granite, headless farm animal re-imagined by Henry Moore. A drab urban set, plenty of hoodies and gymwear and stark lighting. This is an Amalfi as far from Italian sunshine as you could imagine.
This gloom is never in danger of lifting in a first half where dialogue gives way to confrontational shouting delivered amid unsettling moves and windmill-subtle gestures from all. There’s fist-pumping street dance and the bizarre inclusion of a blues classic and all to one of the most featureless and irritating soundtracks this theatre can ever have heard.
All this makes it impossible to see any individual performance as being anything but bluster and noise. There’s no light and shade and, consequently, no colour either in Maria Aberg’s production. As first acts go it feels poorly cut and a bit unloved. And it gives no hint of what’s on the other side of the break.
Because if the first half was a tad bloodless, the same was certainly not true of the second. And how. The Henry Moore cow-pig thing gets sliced open and the blood flows. And flows. A decent spreading stain becomes a puddle and, as the act continues, a thick crimson coating filling most of the stage.
This arresting image then takes over the whole production to the point where it is literally larger, better developed and more fluid than any other character on view. When finally someone steps in it and treads bloody footprints over the floor and onto the nearby bed’s enticingly white sheets, the flood gates (make that blood gates) are well and truly opened.
Sadly this was a slippery slope down which any semblance of a nuanced production greasily progressed. The trouble with all-consuming stage tricks like this is that you can’t get rid of them and, as demise followed demise, it all becomes a bit samey.
By the end it’s wall to wall gore and every character takes a turn to writhe and spin in its sticky liquidity as if Tarantino had taken over Noel’s gunk tank. The audience’s initial revulsion becomes embarrassed laughter.
While the bloodbath dominated proceedings there are acting performances – mainly throttled or stabbed swan songs if the truth be known – but nobody really stands out. Perhaps Joan Iyiola’s duchess relies a little too much on the physical rather than the poetic but it’s a fine effort which does well not to drown in the mess going on around. Her ethnic keening song backed by a chorus of madmen was one joyous surprise in an evening with very little else to offer by way of beauty.
But for the blood, this production would have very little beneath the skin. There’s not a lot to recall to mind. As it is, it will live long in the memory of all who see it simply by dint of the scale and spectacle of the mess. If that was the intention then it’s a true success. But only if.