By John Ford Directed by Matthew Dunster Presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre on 14 April 2015
Struck by love at first sight, the Duke of Pavia has married the beautiful Bianca. But he’s not the only one who loves her. Unknown to him, his best friend Fernando has also fallen for Bianca, and with each day that passes he finds it harder to conceal his true feelings.
While the Duke is unaware of his friend’s dilemma, his sister soon realises what is happening. Racked with jealousy by her own desire for Fernando, she begins to manipulate her brother, encouraging him to act against his friend. With echoes of Shakespeare’s Othello, John Ford’s rarely performed play is a thrilling revenge tragedy powered by the destructive force of unrequited love.
After a disappointing Broken Heart, another of John Ford’s rarely revived plays, we had low expectations of this, which sank even further on learning that this may be the first professional production in nearly 400 years. Where the Globe’s Ford matched its energies to the candlelight of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and seemed, as a consequence, incredibly underpowered, this Swan show was dynamite. D’Avolos may not be the malevolent presence or have the intelligence of Iago, the Duke of Pavy may not experience sexual jealousy to the same degree as Othello, and the miscellany of romantic entanglements and variety of ways in which love is, or is not, requited may all be little more than entertaining distractions, but to even be up for comparison is a magnificent achievement.
The tone is set early on as Roseilli is victim of a “plot of disgrace” engineered by D’Avolos switching letters from the duke, so Roseilli believes he has been banished. It’s not that clear what the secretary’s motivation is, or why Roseilli doesn’t confront the duke in person and so uncover the deception. In performance, the action swiftly moves along and doesn’t let us get bogged down. Fernando appears and suggests England as a destination, a nation known for self-disparagement.
Jamie Thomas King as Fernando and Matthew Needham as Duke of Pavy. Photo by Helen Maybanks
The duke appears with his court, Matthew Needham within the first few moments investing his character with command, playfulness and sarcasm, as he refers to “vain fool” and slow handclaps his sister for her less than enthusiastic welcome of his new wife:
You’re too silent.
Fiormonda is formidable in black, her hair tightly bound, Beth Cordingly creating one of the many strong female characters, constrained to act in certain ways but all showing some independence of spirit.
In the various commentaries the nature of this constraint is attributed to “society” or “religion” (see also Resisting marriage), when much more powerful psychological mechanisms are at work, with their origins deep in our evolutionary past. This is most clearly seen in a remarkable subplot involving three of the women at court and the philandering Ferentes. Colona, Julia and Morona are wooed in turn, each unaware that Ferentes has other women on the go, and apparently unaware that he may be deceiving them as to his true intentions: he’s operating a short-term mating strategy, while they are all on long-term strategies, and hence there is strategic interference (and some comedy).
Ferentes begins with Colona, urging her to meet him in a secluded spot. She resists, but not very much:
How shall I say aye when my fears say no. … If you prove false and love another…
Julia likewise soon gives in to his persuasive charm, her interest piqued when he refers to his “best ability” (with his hand over his crotch). She too demands reassurance that he only has eyes for her. Finally, the widow Morona succumbs — being older, and supposedly wiser to the wiles of men, she ought to have shown the most resistance. Being older, with her reproductive value rapidly approaching zero (he later mocks her for being “a stale widow of six and forty”), she is a correspondingly desperate participant in the mating market, and so may quiet any scepticism about the sincerity of a potential mate and take the risk.
Matthew Needham as Duke of Pavy and the cast. Photo by Helen Maybanks
The ease with which Ferentes makes his conquests contrasts with the monumental task facing Fernando, who cannot face life without Bianca, the wife of his friend and lord, the duke. This is the central tragedy of the play, and, unlike Othello, far from fully worked out. We must accept that Bianca falls in love with the duke, and either doesn’t notice Fernando or hasn’t met him by the time she marries Carafa, and yet subsequently shows no feelings for her husband while falling head over heels for Fernando. It didn’t make perfect sense in performance, but then this was a totally unfamiliar play I was seeing for the first time, having read nothing about it.
Light relief comes on stage in the well-fed shape of Matthew Kelly’s magnificent Mauruccio, a preening older man with pretensions and a comic lusting after the duke’s sister (his yellow stockings completing the homage to Malvolio). Colin Ryan’s cheeky Giacopo is his scampish servant, delivering asides on his master’s absurdity (and his likely sexual prowess, endowed as he is with a “little pink radish”).
At first, Bianca rejects Fernando’s advances in the roundest terms. Catrin Stewart is convincing as wife who loves her husband and is embarrassed and angered by the inappropriate attention. She couldn’t be clearer when she says she’s not interested:
If you speak a fourth time, you will rue your lust.
She will definitely tell her husband and then he’ll be for it. Her indulgence is credible — up to a point. She respects Fernando and likes him as a friend and she knows how unhappy it would make her husband if he knew his best friend were behaving in this way. But four times? It’s beginning to sound like she quite enjoys being propositioned, a little more than she’s letting on.
While Fernando talks of a “rage of blood” the rear wall in filled with a chaotic, pulsing blood-red abstract projection. Amidst this turmoil, they play a game of chess, alone, but he can barely concentrate and leaps up:
Great lady, pity me!
Jamie Thomas King invests this wail with a deal of passion that distracts us from wondering what on earth he thinks he’s doing, falling for his best friend’s wife. It happens, of course, but he’s lucky Bianca has more sense — or has she? She continues resisting his “lawless lust” and the “bestial alliance” and he declares:
I’ll triumph being conquered!
And then, she flips, and the duke is left to resolve never to trust his wife with a friend again.
Meanwhile, Julia reveals that she’s “with child” and reassures her father that Ferentes had proposed marriage:
If vows have any value…
Nibrassa cannot quite believe his daughter has been so gullible:
If only he had channelled Polonius and given his green girl (“shameless woman”) some advice about men. Colona tells her father, Petruchio, about why she gave in to the charms of Ferentes:
He hath sealed his oath to be my husband.
The two fathers chance upon each other in their parental misery:
A jolly clapper hath struck the bell on both sides.
Their two daughters are both with child:
One cock hath our hens.
GBs. They instruct them to plot their revenge:
To work, our wenches.
They leave Julia and Colona sat on the platform, legs dangling in the air, like children on a swing. Unlike children, their thoughts turn to darker purpose:
We are quite betrayed — mocked by an unconstant villain.
When they confront the villain, Ferentes is brazen in his dismissal of their claims on him:
I was ill advised to dig for gold in a coal pit.
He gives them three reasons why he is not interested in them as wives (i.e. as long-term marriage partners), which itemize precisely adaptive solutions to problems faced by males in choosing mates in whose offspring they want to invest.
He tells Colona:
You were too suddenly won.
He tells Morona:
You’re too old.
He tells Julia:
You have a scurvy face.
In a parting shot, he throws out a line that further distances him from taking responsibility:
You say I’m the father…
Here, a man uses paternity uncertainty to his advantage, by casting doubt on the identity of the children and deflecting attention away from his own promiscuity (impossible for a woman who is pregnant).
Jonathan McGuinness as D’Avolos. Photo by Helen Maybanks
The more usual emotional fallout of paternity uncertainty is sexual jealousy, and D’Avalos is as direct with the duke as Ferentes was with his women:
You are a cuckold.
Like Othello, Carafa demands to see proof, but his mind is already digesting this new information, which is catastrophic for his inclusive fitness (not that he puts it in these terms — he simply feels the emotion). His sister chips in with some choice derogation of Bianca: a “sallow-coloured brat” who’s used her “brothel-instructed art” to confuse him into marriage:
You shall have a bastard.
Why is she bothered one way or the other? In part, again, because of inclusive fitness: assuming she is his full sister, she shares half her genes with him and so has a genetic interest in his offspring, so long as they are his offspring and not some other man’s. Her language illustrates a recent finding (Buss 2008:301):
The content of the verbal forms of aggression is revealing. The most frequently used nasty names and rumors spread by girls about other girls involved terms such as “bitch,” “slag,” “hussy,” and “whore.”
Mauruccio has been thrown into jail, and on being hauled out rhymes “puke” with “duke” expecting any moment to be sentenced to death. So, he is somewhat surprised to be offered the hand of Morona. The court is aghast that he’s so desperate he’s willing to even consider the match, let alone go through with it:
Can you believe she will be true to thy bed?
Promiscuity before marriage is a sign that infidelity may come after marriage, which is why chastity is prized by men seeking long-term partners. Mauruccio, however, like Morona, cannot afford to be so choosy — both are low in mate value and must settle for what they can get. Indeed, he makes a virtue of her pregnancy:
I like thee better for it… it shows a fertile womb.
Whether he will get to plant his own seed in that ground and see it flourish remains an unanswered question.
A less pleasant fate awaits Bianca’s womb, as Carafa, egged on by Fiormonda, plays out an ancient evolutionary script.
Cast: Andy Apollo, Ferentes; Sheila Atim, Julia; Guy Burgess, Nibrassa; Beth Cordingly, Fiormonda; Geoffrey Freshwater, Abbot; Marcus Griffiths, Roseilli; Rhiannon Handy, Colona; Simon Hedger, Guard; Julian Hoult, Attendant; Matthew Kelly, Mauruccio; Jamie Thomas King, Fernando; Jonathan McGuinness, D’Avalos; Annette McLaughlin, Morona; Matthew Needham, Duke of Pavy; Richard Rees, Petruchio; Colin Ryan, Giacapo; Nav Sidhu, Attendant; Catrin Stewart, Bianca; Gabby Wong, Attendant