A theatrical tour de force, heightened by a visual spectacular conjured up by The Old Vic, which hides its weaknesses within a powerful mix of high drama and dark beauty.
One cannot help but be struck by a sense of excitement upon entering The Old Vic and setting eyes on the set for the The Duchess of Malfi staging. It is a towering, multi-level creation: part cathedral; part Italian castello. The air is heavy with the smell of incense; the stage is, quite literally, set for a drama of exaggerated proportions.
It would be almost impossible to stage John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi without a sense of overstatement and slight farce. Webster was, after all, known in his day for his crudity and obsession with blood and guts. The Old Vic's dramatisation makes no attempt to tone this down. Its characterisation may veer sometimes towards the comical, but this mitigates what is otherwise an unrelenting and unapologetic tragedy.
The play starts with an eerie, candle lit masked dance in the home of the Duchess of Malfi, played by Eve Best. Best plays the role beautifully, as convincing as the joyous newlywed as she then is as the tragic, helpless heroine. Her two brothers, the Cardinal played by Finbar Lynch and Ferdinand by Harry Lloyd, both achieve what is required of them; a sinister, debased double-act, whose machinations are utterly compelling to watch. Unfortunately, many of the supporting cast fail to match the quality displayed by the main protagonists, as become noticeably apparent as the body count rose. However, even in death, Webster ensured that his lead characters continued to hold the audience's attention, allowing for any weak acting to be quickly forgiven.
This is not a play for the faint-hearted. Scenes of a rather sexual nature, plus some fairly gruesome props, could make for an uncomfortable three hours if you prefer your drama gentle and pared back. Those seeking an evening to remember will not be disappointed.