Note: This review dates from the production's original London run in November 2000.
Despite the beauty of the poetry and the intense Jacobean floridness of the imagery, The Duchess of Malfi is an incredibly modern play. It's not just the orgy of killing at the end, resembling Tarantino at his goriest, but also the psychological torments that the Duchess's brothers inflict on her, which are reminiscent of brainwashing techniques that have only come to the fore in the past century.
It therefore makes perfect sense for Gale Edwards to set this powerful play in the 20th century - what doesn't make sense is to lavish on it the layers of kitsch that this production has been burdened with.
And yet it starts so promisingly, with Antonio outside a party room, staring at the opulent entertainment within - marking him as an outsider of the ruling class from the outset. The seduction scene between him and the duchess is handled superbly (despite her rather bizarre corsetry). It just goes downhill from there.
The main problem with the production is that Aisling O'Sullivan is not really a convincing Duchess. She sounds hesitant when it comes to speaking the verse and there's no real sense of her dignity. Her anguished cry of 'I am the Duchess of Malfi still' is delivered more in hope than defiance.
The other main problem with the play is the way that so much of the anti-religious element has dated. Edwards glosses over this difficulty. To us, the idea that a cardinal has a mistress and kills her by making her kiss a poisoned prayer book is a sort of joke while 17th century audiences would have seen it as confirming their worst fears of papist behaviour.
However, if we're going to see a villainous cardinal as an almost grotesque comic figure, then there's little need to over-egg the pudding by dressing him in a sort of leather corset (more corsets! you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled upon an Italianate Ann Summers party). Ken Bones' performance is far too much over-the-top campness, and as such, diminishes the villainy of the character.
Similarly, Colin Tierney's Ferdinand plays too much for laughs. There's no sense of the neurotic creature full of incestuous longings for his sister; again, there's an excess of camp that makes even the lycanthropy scene seem more like 'Carry on Werewolf'.
But Richard Lintern's measured Antonio and Tom Mannion's impassioned Bosola are compensations. Mannion in particular, a late substitute, comes on and plays a blinder.
Disappointment then at the Barbican, although Webster's magnificent play is good enough to withstand any level of heavy-handed treatment - this isn't awful, merely mediocre.