Through the claustrophobic blackness of Ruth Sutcliffe’s grim, imposing set, glimpses of a giant Caravaggio canvas loom large over the action. It’s a handy metaphor for the whole production: this version of Webster’s bleak tragedy is all about the images.
Director Laurie Sansom has taken the relentless misery of the 1623 text and merged it with the strange, other-worldly music of Webster’s contemporary, the violent and probably insane wife-killer Gesualdo. This combination of unstable talents – not Sansom, you understand – provides the shifting and dangerous backdrop for a performance of equally uncertain elements.
The first thing to say is that it looks magnificent. There’s a consistent vision throughout of decaying decadence in a time of corruption and chaos, and the corresponding decay of the ingenious and complex set works brilliantly.
Equally, the use of five chorus-like madrigal singers on stage to underscore the dramatic action is both vocally impressive and subtly intimidating: who would have thought a glee club could be so threatening?
Among the main players there is more of a mixed bag, but assured performances are offered by the likeable though wronged Antonio (Nick Blood) and the Duchess’s maid Cariola (Claire Dargo). Elsewhere, there is sometimes a struggle to mine the meaning from the poetry – verse-speaking is an endemic problem, in fact – and there is little sense of metre or lyricism as the language is subverted to the bigger picture of the unfolding narrative.
But when that narrative is so imaginatively presented and beautifully, elegantly staged, it’s easier to make allowances for other shortcomings. The audience, certainly, seemed to be convinced.