From the devil to the duchess

  • Duchess of Malfi RSC Swan Theatre
  • Duchess of Malfi RSC Swan Theatre
  • Maria Aberg

Director Maria Aberg is back at Stratford for a dark revenge tragedy: John Webster's 'The Duchess of Malfi', playing at the Swan Theatre from 1st March - 3rd August 2018. Maria gets under the skin of this disturbing story in this special Q&A.

Youve worked extensively at the RSC in Stratford, and this will be your fifth production in the Swan Theatre. Could you tell us what youre looking forward to about being in Stratford again? Do you especially enjoy working in the Swan Theatre?

There's something that really focuses the work once a company moves up to Stratford from the rehearsal rooms in London. It's like the collective temperature rises a few degrees - everyone just steps it up. It's a very exciting time. As a director, you really start getting a sense of the production as a whole - and then getting on to the stage is, of course, always brilliant.

The Swan is an extremely welcoming space, but for me it also has some sort of ritual magic - that probably makes me sound like a complete hippy, but I think that beautiful wood holds some memory of all the words that have been spoken in there, like an old Stradivarius that holds the memory of all the music it's ever played. You're sharing the space with everyone who's been there before.

In 2014 you directed John Webster’The White Devil for the RSC. This time youre directing another of his plays, The Duchess of Malfi. What is it about his work that particularly appeals to you?

So many things - it's unapologetically political and incredibly theatrical, which is quite a tricky thing to pull off. It's bold, it's lyrical and it's so emotional - when the Duchess has to say farewell to her husband, doubting that she will ever see him again, she is left alone on stage for a moment after he's gone and she says, 'My laurel is all withered' sort of to herself which breaks my heart a little every time I hear it.

For people who dont know the story, can you give us a quick synopsis?

The Duchess has recently become a widow, and, ostensibly to protect the purity of the family blood line, her two brothers explicitly forbid her to marry again. She instantly defies them and secretly marries a man way below her station. Eventually the brothers find out and start plotting their revenge...

Naomi Dawson, who youve worked with on many occasions, is designing the production. Can you tell us a bit about the design for the show? What is it about Naomi that makes you enjoy working with her?

We've tried to create a metaphorical space - it's not a literal representation of the locations in the play. We focused our research around the idea of masculine spaces and have layered a few ideas on top of each other to create something which I hope will have poetic resonance with the themes of the play. Working with the same designer again and again means we can both be braver about exploring ideas and pushing ourselves and each other.

Joan Iyiola is playing the title role. What do you think she will bring to the part?

I first worked with Joan when she played Zanche in The White Devil, and I knew already then that she was extraordinary. She has incredible power, but also a great deal of warmth and humour. And she has both the status and the skill required to play someone like the Duchess. I'm very excited to work with her again.

How did you get into directing, and what other productions have you got in the pipeline? 

It's all I've ever wanted to do! I got into theatre as a child and once I discovered directing as a teenager, I never looked back... After The Duchess of Malfi, I'm directing the musical Little Shop of Horrors at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park - quite a different piece!

The Duchess of Malfi plays at the Swan Theatre from 1st March - 3rd August 2018. For more information, and to book tickets, please visit