The Duchess of Malfi, Swan Theatre, Stratford, until August 3
A hired executioner, just seconds before he joins the litter of dead bodies at the end of John Webster’s fierce 17th century play, puts it all in a nutshell: ‘What a gloomy world!’
This masterly understatement reflects the snatches of black humour which allow breathing space in an otherwise unrelenting theatrical bloodbath.
Webster pulled no punches and neither does director Maria Aberg with an operatic-type crescendo of violence and general mayhem.
Huge, thumping musical effects, a chanting chorus who at one point become raving madmen, and blood, lots of it, seeping around stage and splashing on to pre-sheltered front-row audience folk – there’s nothing less to be expected in a drama which focuses on revenge, corruption, cruelty and incest.
Oh, and let’s not forget misogyny because this is at the real heart of the piece, the submissive role demanded of women, even a Duchess whose two brothers are set on wiping out any suggestion of her re-marrying.
This is theatricality on an epic scale, a play and a production which are both wildly over the top. The first half consists mostly of elaborate and noisy scene-setting, with choreographed dancers occasionally resembling Diversity.
The second lets fly with the stabbings, stranglings and poisonings, etc.
Through it all towers the Duchess, as played with immense power and sensitivity by Joan Iyiola. She takes us from lovelorn lass to lusty lioness with terrific physical and vocal agility and truly commands the stage.
But it has to be taken tongue-in- cheek. Webster’s work can hardly be seen as a great play. Although a Shakespeare contemporary, his reputation is rooted in violence.
The only way is excess, so to speak.
Pictures by Helen Maybanks. Above, Alexander Cobb as Ferdinand, and Chris New as The Cardinal.
Joan Iyiola as The Duchess