“In what a shadow or deep pit of darkness doth womanish and fearful mankind live”
Gemma Arterton may have the part of the willowy ingénue down pat in The Duchess of Malfi at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse just now but over in the earthier environment of the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, something much more radical is happening. Cover Her Face is a new version of John Webster’s 1613 work which relocates the play to the queer subculture of 1950s London, Malfi being the club at the centre of the scene, and third gender writer/performer La JohnJoseph its transgender Duchess.
Daniel Fulvio and Martin Moriarty’s reworking for Inky Cloak is a bold move but one which pays richly evocative rewards. The shifting of the narrative onto a trans focus possesses an aching urgency – JohnJoseph’s Duchess longing for love and marriage and the freedom to live as a woman, yet cruelly constrained by the conservatism of her two brothers – malevolent twin Ferdinand and the closeted Minister. Their uneasy arrangement is shattered though by arrival of the handsome Antonio. with predictably tragic consequences.
JohnJoseph presents the Duchess with an uncluttered simplicity, a person with needs like any other and determined to fulfil them, especially in the form of the irresistible connection that sparks with Tom Campion’s Antonio. And that is one of the production’s major strengths – for all of the queering of the pitch, the emotions that shine through apply to us all whether LGBTQ or straight as a die. All-consuming passion, crippling jealousy, tender love, fierce rage – this is the stuff of all our lives.
Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club is a canny choice of location – if you’ve been before, it will already be redolent of the louche hedonism espoused in the piece. If not, the same-sex dancing, tea parties, snorting of coke off six-packs and spanking with umbrellas will soon get you acclimatised. Fulvio and Moriarty’s direction uses every nook and cranny of the room, meaning some craning of the neck will be necessary, but it is usually worth it to catch the cast of nine.
Detailed work comes from all sides – Oliver Yellop’s tender Cariolo devoted to his mistress, Kane Surry’s highly sexual Julian turning heads, Jack Johns’ starched conventionality as the Minister. Christopher Tester’s swaggering Bosola – the most compellingly drawn character – emerges as the strongest alongside JohnJoseph – initially just the hired muscle, his slow progress to awareness, not only of what is going on but his own sexuality, is powerfully drawn as the play winds to its devastating climax.