Jacobean tragedy is powerful drama, rich in verse as well as intricate plotting, but it holds one enormous difficulty for a modern director in the shape of the violently-killed corpse pyramid in the final scene.
Owen Horsley's new, extremely intelligent production of Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi" for Eyestrings Theatre solves the problem brilliantly – but you will have to see and hear for yourself how he achieves this.
The standard of voice-speaking is almost uniformly high and the interval-less action never loses momentum. Designer Simon Anthony Wells with Helen Atkinson (sound) and Daniel Street (lighting) create a sense of menace from the moment we walk into the theatre to be confronted by the seven actors in modern dress sitting motionless.
Horsley begins the action with a lengthy mime sequence; the grimacing faces appear almost as masks, and it becomes apparent that everyone on stage, sympathetic or otherwise, is indeed concealing his or her fragile reality.
It is only proper that the Duchess, whose sole wish is to give and share in happiness, dominates in Beatrice Walker's characterisation. Nicholas Figgis as the Machiavellian lecherous Cardinal and Vincent Enderby as Ferdinand, who is driven by something darker than a mere concern for family honour and fortune, also give good performances.
Charlotte Powell doubles waiting-woman Cariola and the cardinal's mistress Julia while Philips Cairns' Scots-accented Bosola is a good foil for Owen Young's robust Antonio.
It's a measure of the intensity into which this production draws its audience – including quite a few students at the Harlow Playhouse performance as well as more mature theatre-goers – that the drama holds a true sense of reality.
So the characters become real people in a real place and of a real time. While we're in the theatre, watching and listening, that also becomes our place and our time.