The Duchess of Malfi officially opened at the RSC on International Women’s Day – apt timing for a story focused on misogyny with a strong female character taking centre stage.
I spoke to Maria Aberg, director of the production and one of an all-female directing team for the RSC’s summer season. Maria tackles the shocking tale in her own distinct style, capturing the strong themes in a clever way.
“It is a story of two brothers who forbid their sister to remarry. She pretty much instantly defies them, marries someone in secret who is of lesser rank and they gradually find out about her betrayal and punish her for it,” she said. “I did a decisive edit of the original, which has a lot of subplots and minor characters, and I decided to really focus on the three siblings and they’re very much in the centre of it because I feel like that dynamic is really exciting.”
For a complex production, Maria approached the editing by looking at the core of the story and being careful with the decisions of what she kept and lost. Very interested in finding metephors for the sexual politics of the play, Maria spent a lot of time discussing what other versions of masculinity and femininity are in the play. “I wanted to look at how we present them in a way that feels theatrical, responsible and politically interesting,” she said.
Maria directed John Webster’s violent tragedy, The White Devil, in the Swan Theatre in 2014. So although she wasn’t familiar with The Duchess of Malfi ahead of directing it, she was familiar with Webster’s language and themes. “It meant I could be completely fresh on it and make my own decisions,” she said.
“My main challenge when I first approached it was making them real, three dimensional people. I wanted to make sure the relationships are complex and human. They’re allowed to be contradictory and you have some level of compassion for them all,” Maria explained. “All of them do despicable things in the play and it’s just not allowing easy judgement of that and just making sure they feel human at all times. Really the main challenge is making them feel like people that you can in some way relate to, even though they do things that I wouldn’t even dream of.”
The production is completely contemporary and set in a parallel theatrical reality, despite being written in the 1600s. “We have very much treated it like a piece of today, so it’s a very different language and different image,” Maria said. “I think there is nothing about the way that we’ve done it that feels like you need to know the time, or reach into history to try and understand what it means or how it’s relevant.”
“I think the politics of it are as relevant today as they ever were.”
Designer Naomi Dawson has created the staging to have a really modern, gritty look. We tried to create the space that isn’t literal so we don’t have different locations,” Maria explained. “So we have found metaphorical realities that feel harsh, and we drew up various references that led us to something that feels like a competitive arena, very public and exposed.”
Joan Iyiola takes on the role of the defiant Duchess of Malfi. “The part needs someone that has all the warmth and passion, fun and playfulness of a real person but can also play incredible status, power strength and vulnerability and Joan is that person,” Maria said. Emphasising how these great female roles are few and far between, Maria described the Duchess as a part that is “complex, defiant, independent and an incredibly powerful woman.”
When audience members are armed with blankets to protect themselves from the splatter of blood, you know it’s going to be a dramatic and striking production. “It is very bleak but it is about resilience and love, and how weird, ugly and sometimes heart-breaking that can be,” Maria explained. “There are a lot of big emotional things that I think might take a little while to process. I don’t think it is the sort of show that has a neatly packaged message.”
The Duchess of Malfi is on at the Swan Theatre in the RSC until the 3rd of August, tickets and information can be found here.