Matthew Needham as the Duke of Pavy
Matthew Needham as the Duke of Pavy

The RSC's main house productions this summer of The Merchant of Venice and Othello are paired in the Swan with The Jew of Malta and John Ford's "Othello" play, Love's Sacrifice, the latter not revived in four hundred years - and with good reason?

Matthew Dunster's RSC debut production could have been a dutiful rediscovery of a rightly forgotten melodrama of court intrigue, sexual jealousy and climactic bloodbath. But it's much more: a densely plotted carnal tragedy of lust, misapprehension and revenge, set in the chaste and sinewy verse of Ford's better known masterpieces 'Tis Pity She's a Whore and - recently seen at Shakespeare's Globe - The Broken Heart.

Fernando (Jamie Thomas King), best friend of the Italian duke Caraffa (Matthew Needham), is struck by his friend's new wife, Bianca (Catrin Stewart). Their unconsummated "affair" is stirred by the Iago-like villain D'Avolos (Jonathan McGuinness), egged on by Caraffa's widowed sister Fiormonda (Beth Cordingly), a disappointed lover who pines for Fernando.

Sewn into this already unsavoury scenario are the outrageous exploits of a profligate courtier and loathsome love god, Ferentes (Andy Apollo), his three pregnant girlfriends, and a risible buffoon, Mauruccio (Matthew Kelly), a deluded suitor of Fiormonda, who minces about with a large mirror and a small boy, shamelessly seeking adulation and exit rounds.

The sexual violence is genuinely shocking but symptomatic, too, of flawed human nature and the wayward adventures of the heart. Dunster and his designer Anna Fleischle (best known for her work in dance and opera, and with DV8) bathe these antics in some striking visual imagery - the foetal embryos of the girlfriends projected onto their crimson taffeta corsets - and the sensual, modernist string quartet music of Alexander Balanescu.

After a disastrously incomprehensible opening mime sequence - easily cut to everyone's advantage, surely - the show recovers as an unexpectedly compelling spectacle, the architecture of the Swan re-focused in a series of lightly executed arches that blend in receding perspective with an ecclesiastical interior: the revenge masques are conducted under the complicit gaze of Bianca's clerical uncle (Geoffrey Freshwater), with stabbings galore and a creepy lovelorn exhumation that makes the graveside intervention of Laertes in Hamlet look like very small bier.

The company doubles as various nuns, friars and guards, strongly led by Needham's nervy and attractive Caraffa, dangerously susceptible to damaging gossip, Cordingly's sour and poisonous minx and McGuinness's transparent court gall. The vengefully abusive trio of abused lovers are vividly done by Rhiannon Handy, Sheila Atim and Annette McLaughlin.

Love's Sacrifice runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 24 June 2015