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Secret Theatre Show 4 (Lyric Hammersmith)

The latest production in Sean Holmes' enigmatic season premieres in Hammersmith is a contemporary take on a Jacobean classic

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Steven Webb in rehearsals for Show 4

The fourth "secret theatre" production in Sean Holmes' provocative season takes one of the great Jacobean tragedies by John Webster (there aren't that many, alas) and makes a complicated, highly poetic drama even more complicated, by its omissions and short cuts, and much less poetic.

No fault of the modernising dramatist, Hayley Squires, who does a good job of turning the central poisonous relationships of state worthies, clergymen and an unjustly arraigned white devil in crystal, the Venetian lady Victoria, into some sort of modern parable of perverse sexuality, drug-taking and political corruption.

She goes much further than Edward Bond did with the same play, re-titling her version "Glitterland" and leaving only a few textual clues sticking out like shards of glass on a shingly beach.

At first, this Victoria in Katherine Pearce's performance comes across as a Jean Harlow "baby doll" hidden away while the government rages in the cabinet room: Nadia Albina's sparkly-jacketed Monty, a character derived from a particularly nasty cardinal, is the most psychotically dangerous of them all as the stew of intrigue bubbles in the cauldron.

As before in this season, the experiment is twofold: to loosen a familiar classic from its moorings in order to test its sea-going worthiness; and to translate the text into a distant idiom so that the original is placed in some kind of revelatory relief. On the other hand, the audience is invited to encounter something so strangely unsettling that they find themselves in a disorienting limbo of savage behaviour and unpredictability.

At this level, Ellen McDougall's fearless modern dress production is certainly convincing, as the betrayals and conspiracies, dumb shows and insane extremities of hedonism carry the protagonists to the brink of political and personal destruction.

Hyem Shin's design is a stark black box – as the Lyric's re-build continues, we are in effect sitting in the studio space – lit by Lizzie Powell in shadows and silhouettes, two doorways only compounding a sense of suffocation. In this context, Victoria's theme song of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" is an ironic statement of unattainable innocence and unspoilt landscape.

She is trapped in a web of lust and deception spun by her lover, played with frightening, blinkered concentration by the imposing Hammed Animashaun; her nervous wreck of a brother as played by the neurotically compelling Leo Bill; her lover's wife Isabelle (Cara Horgan) and Isabelle's brother Franco (Sergo Vares); and her totally bemused (as well he might be) husband played by Billy Seymour as a squeaky-voiced dupe.

Then there's a sub-plot, and it's every man for himself. One or two of the characters, notably Steven Webb's bonkers Lucio – in Webster's play he's described as "an Italian count, but decayed" – have had enough by this time and jump ship altogether as the action spirals into a frenzy of "the biggest televisual event since the moon-landing" and consequent death-dealing.