If Jacobean dramatist John Webster had been writing today he'd probably be penning some violent and bloody gang related HBO drama or episodes of Spooks, killing off key characters when you least expect it. It is, after all, a brave move knocking off your heroine 40 minutes before the end of the play but an act that sets in motion the sort of bloody carnage so loved by early 17th century writers.
Webster's Duchess of Malfi is a tale of two evil brothers who bully their young, widowed sister, banning her from remarrying and then pursuing her relentlessly when they discover she has not only taken a husband but one of lowly status.
This being classic Jacobean tragedy there are undertones of incestuous feelings and murder most foul but it is an honour killing that is at the heart of the Machiavellian and brutal plotting that forms the central storyline.
The Old Vic production, directed by Jamie Lloyd, is beautifully staged in traditional dress against a backdrop of stairs and landings with intricate carvings, lit so as to throw carefully sculpted shadows and shafts of light.
And the cast do a wonderful job with Webster's rich and metaphor heavy text. I could listen to Mark Bonnar's beautifully Scottish-lilted soliloquies as Bosola for hours, even if he is spitting bile and loathing against mankind most of the time.
Tom Bateman who is building an impressive CV having played Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing at the Wyndham's last year while still at drama school, takes on the more meaty role of the Duchess's good-souled husband Antonio. And it is always a joy to see Harry Lloyd on stage - here channeling a little of his Game of Thrones character Viserys Tagaryen, as the jealous and venomous brother who has an eye for his sister. He does a very convincing almost bratish baddy.
It was my first time seeing theatre darling Eve Best and she didn't disappoint as the strong-willed tragic heroine.
This was a late preview performance and from what @oughttobeclowns has said the running time has tightened up considerably as this performance clocked in at 2 hours and 40 including interval rather than the 3 hours 20 advertised. It still sags a little in the middle of the second half but quickly picks up pace as the carnage begins - the Duchess's demise is particularly drawn out and distressing.
Jacobean tragedy done bloody well - the Old Vic has finally found the stage blood supplies - I'm going to give it four stars.
The Duchess of Malfi runs at the Old Vic until June 9
Was worried that I might have to call upon the Kevin Spacey fall-back but fortunately found a direct link, Finbar Lynch who plays the Cardinal has Richard II listed in his TV credits in which Mr W takes the title role of course (due to be aired in July according to recent reports).