Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club may seem an unlikely venue for a queered version of The Duchess of Malfi but – trust me – it works.
You enter a big old function room with a bar in the corner. You can sit in rows or at cabaret tables with authentic full ashtrays. As you await the start of the show it dawns that the whole room is the stage and the performance will happen around you.
And what a performance it is. The Duchess of Malfi has been queered. It’s 1959 and the Duchess is trans; her twin brother Ferdinand refers to her as his brother. The Cardinal, their eldest brother, is not a cardinal but a newly elected (Tory) MP. Julia has had an ‘n’ affixed and is now a rent boy, exploiting the minister’s closeted homosexuality and his fondness for public school fantasies and Castruccio is a drag queen. Bosola is a fixer and something like a spin doctor to our new MP.
Otherwise the story is pretty much unchanged; the dialogue is still Webster’s. It’s still a tragedy and the same people die and the same person goes mad. Bosola is still a treacherous spy. The themes of power, intrigue, class and corruption are still played out, with the add-ons of transphobia and sexual hypocrisy. There are in-jokes of course: expressing contempt at the Duchess’ behaviour the Tory Minister says her heart has moved ‘so far upon the left side’. To save ‘husband’ Antonio from a wicked plot the Duchess sends him to Brighton. Giggles all round.
The all-male cast fill the place with vibrancy and continuous action, appearing at different stages, sometimes playing out two scenes simultaneously. You are never far away from a seduction scene. All the actors play their roles well. La JohnJoseph’s wealthy socialite Duchess seems steeped in the role and delivers the lines with crystal clear diction as might befit someone in her position. Tom Campion’s Antonio seems to have fallen from the cast of TOWIE and squirts ‘working class’ testosterone at the audience. Tom Cuthbertson plays the mean and wicked Ferdinand and Jack Johns the utterly corrupt minister soundly and solidly. Kane Surry’s Julian is genuinely seductive. Oliver Yellop’s Cariolo, the loyal valet, is rustic and innocent so that his fate is as near as dammit unbearable. Ashley Pekri’s Delio is full of energy. He and Kane also play the masked drinkers who are procured to perform the surprisingly realistic murders.
Nigel Osner, as Castruccio, has the last word and she governs the stage with an aloofness and a ‘what else could you expect?’ attitude. But Christopher Tester’s Bosola is most dynamic performance. He froths at the mouth when angry, his chest heaves when he is indignant. He seethes and his eyes water when he is intense. It’s as if there is a nest of angry beasts in his body trying to find their way out. Despite his treachery we can still empathise with him at the end – and that is some trick to pull off.
Cover Her Face is an inspired idea well realised. I hope it goes far. I certainly hope it goes beyond Bethnal Green.
Tony Fenwick
Cover Her Face is at Bethnal Green Working men’s Club until the 15th of February
Book tickets here