At some point I really need to properly study Jacobean art, literature, theatre, and history (it's a sort of retirement dream at the moment). It's a period I don't really know a great deal about, but the more bits I learn the more pivotal It seems, and fascinating with it.
Briefly, The Duchess of Malfi is the one where the young widowed duchess falls in love with her household steward and secretly marries him. Meanwhile her brothers, presumably seeking to control her fortune, as well as her person, are plotting. When they get wind of her relationship with Antonio they set out to destroy her. Everybody dies at the end.
Webster's play is based on a short story from William Painter's 1566-7 collection 'The Palace of Pleasure', the source material seems to have been infinitely more misogynistic than Webster's version with much blame attached to the duchess for desiring Antonio, her social inferior.
There are some excellent performances in this production, Joan Iyiola is a compelling duchess, Chris New horribly sinister as her brother, the cardinal, and Nicolas Tennant's Bosola is particularly convincing in his journey from amoral spy to conflicted avenger.
Performances aside though there's a lot here that we felt didn't work particularly well. This is the 3rd play directed by Maria Aberg that we've seen at The Swan, and we're beginning to recognise her style. There's a grubbiness to the set that seems fairly typical, but which I find distracting.
It's a modern dress production, which is fine, but it took diligent reading of the programme during the interval to identify which of the brothers was which, and what they were; a duke and cardinal respectively. Not being able to tell that as the first half unfolds is unhelpful, especially when it comes to the Cardinal, the gap between his actions and his position is lost.
Meanwhile the set is a cross between a broken down gym and an abattoir, with a symbolic bulls carcass strung up in one corner (its apparently meant to represent the patriarchy). The gym/abattoir arrangement is because director and set designer wanted specifically male environments to explore a toxic masculinity, this is underlined by an interest "in drawing a line from the sporting world, through to the military", both representing "a socially acceptable arena and outlet for competitiveness and aggression". It's hard not to see this as an allusion to fascism, which feels lazy. There are other forms of toxic masculinity in male hierarchies that might better suggest court politics and jealousy, and better reflect the everyday danger that misogyny throws at women.
Finally, in the second half that bull carcass is stabbed, which floods the stage with blood. Symbolically this works on a number of levels, but mostly is was distracting. Watching the cast flounder and splash around in this stuff (the first row had a dust sheet to cover themselves with, I can only hope it offered sufficient protection) all we could think about was how they were going to clean the stage, themselves, the props, and the costumes - so not focusing on the dialogue at all. Less would have been much more effective.
In conclusion; worth seeing, but avoid the front two rows at ground level, and read the programme thoroughly first.