Ultz’s design is a reconfiguration of the square, functional Maria studio as a B and Q warehouse, the audience at ground level seated behind plywood fencing, as in a corrida, with actors concealed in cupboards and boxes in the Spanish castle and mobile cages in the lunatic asylum.
In a skilfully edited version of the full text – no feeble butchery as at the Southwark Playhouse recently – the parallel plots of sexual deceit and possession are gloriously entwined at the wedding feast, where the pageant of madmen and fools embraces everyone in a brilliant rap dance version of the Mendelssohn march (choreography by Maxine Doyle).
Miraculously, eight actors cover all bases, leaving the wonderful Jessica Raine – throwing off her demure persona in the current television hit Call the Midwife – to sink into a quagmire of lust with her hired hit man, De Flores, whom Daniel Cerqueira interestingly portrays as an older, more stolid, bearded and bubble-skinned retainer in a morning suit.
As the wedding party congas round the cake, punch and jellies, these two are left to conga alone on the table; the bridegroom Alsemero (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) is instantly cuckolded as the price for another, preferred suitor’s murder.
Things get serious when Raine’s Beatrice-Joannna sets up her lady Diaphanta (Charlotte Lucas) in a honeymoon bed-trick to disguise her own lack of chastity. Potions in Alsemero’s closet prove Diaphanta’s virginity when she gapes “incontinently” (prompting a second bout of onstage female micturition following Lisa Dillon’s “accident” in The Shrew at Stratford) and giggles uncontrollably.
We then see groom and bride-substitute thrashing around while smearing each other with party jelly and cream; that red stuff gets everywhere as the stage starts dripping blood in the final scenes; B-J’s anointed fiancé (Duncan Wisbey, who doubles as a Crippen-like asylum keeper) has earlier been drowned in a bowl of punch.
Feigned madness and subterfuge sex run rampant in a play that is merciless in its lack of compassion but ruthless in its understanding of a man (and woman’s, especially) sensual urges. “I am in pain and must be eased of you,” cries De Flores, and Raine becomes more converted to his cause than she is to her own self-indulgence. Her face is a picture of horror as she realises that she’s trapped as an accomplice in the murder.
I can’t recall a better production of the play, nor one that transmits, and literally so, at the end, that distinctive cacophonous Jacobean roar while making the nastiness, and the tragedy, immediately comprehensible to the Young Vic’s audience.
There’s a throb of foreboding and operatic nightmare on Paul Arditti’s soundtrack: the offstage party people are no different from their confined counterparts in the asylum, and it’s fascinating to see the highly impressive Alex Beckett make connections as an apparatchik in both worlds.