Cheek by Jowl begin a most welcome three-year residency at the Barbican with a stunning modern dress production of The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, a Jacobean shocker of sex and violence last seen at the National in a sumptuous Goya-esque staging by Richard Eyre in 1988.

Declan Donnellan’s approach is more intense and clinical. He and designer Nick Ormerod have closed down the Barbican auditorium, placing cast and audience on the stage in a new configuration not dissimilar to that of the new Trafalgar Studios, alas.

But the scheme (apart from the uncomfortable seating) works brilliantly for this play. We observe these over-heated creatures tearing each other apart as if witnesses in a laboratory. In Alicante, a merchant of Valencia, Alsemero (Tom Hiddleston), desires the governor’s daughter, Beatrice Joanna (Olivia Williams), whose servant, De Flores (Will Keen), despatches her fiancé in order to seduce her himself in a lustful imbroglio.

At the same time, Rowley’s sub-plot – sometimes cut, or at least awkwardly dealt with – shows a nobleman, Antonio (Phil Cheadle), adopting a madman’s disguise in order to seduce the young wife (Jodi McNee) of the head doctor (Jim Hooper) in the lunatic asylum. Antonio is described as the changeling in the cast list, but Beatrice Joanna is a stronger contender for the soubriquet: the beautiful daughter who is overtaken and transformed by lust, guilt and despair.

Using the vast Barbican backstage area to the full in a diagrammatic dance of sensual destruction, the cast assembles in religious solemnity, each character battened to a functional red chair. The suggestion is that they are all inmates of the asylum, though the sub-plot is played in a full glare of lighting; this suits the more transparent nature of the writing.

In the density of the play (im)proper, every other line of Middleton contains a lewd pun or joke. When Beatrice Joanna drops her glove, she dares De Flores to thrust his fingers in their sockets (“Her fingers touched me! She smells all amber”). He later presents her with the severed finger of her dead betrothed; his ring would not come off. And Diaphanta (bespectacled Jennifer Kidd), the maid who sleeps with Alsemero in the classic “bed trick” to preserve Beatrice Joanna’s virginal reputation (now soiled) talks dirty without even realising it.

Olivia Williams, whose unspectacular early career at the RSC was forgotten when Kevin Costner whisked her away to Hollywood to star with him in The Postman, is a revelation as Beatrice Joanna, her passions running out of control, her thoughts as vile as their consequences.

Will Keen’s De Flores is her match and nemesis, a slim malcontent of an assassin whose face is covered in boils – Richard Eyre’s De Flores was an imposing, handsome black actor whose “ugliness” was ironic – and whose motivation is nothing but sexual gratification, as indeed it is for almost everyone else on the stage for as long as they remain alive.

- Michael Coveney