Having worked wonders on Tennessee Williams’ decidedly flawed play Summer and Smoke, director Rebecca Frecknall works a similar magic on John Webster, turning a Jacobean revenge tragedy with a dizzyingly high body count into a taut psychological thriller.
The production boasts a stunning performance by Lydia Wilson in the role of the young, titled widow who, in the eyes of her brothers, commits an unforgivable sin: not only remarrying but also choosing her steward Antonio (Khalid Abdalla), a man below her in class and social status. Wilson plays the Duchess as a woman of will and strength, capable of looking her would-be assassin straight in the eye, but also human, someone making the best of the hand that life has dealt her, who has the audacity to want to be happy.
Webster’s play is fundamentally unbalanced; its title character is dispatched two thirds of the way through. But Frecknall addresses this absence by having her haunt the stage, watching over the men who destroyed her, tormenting them.
Her production feels almost wearyingly stylish to begin with. Everything gleams in that familiar Almeida way. Chloe Lamford’s set consists of a huge, stage-dominating glass tank that’s part shower cubicle, part display case. Initially this space is a haven for the Duchess as she raises her family in secret but it becomes a place of imprisonment later on.
Sound designer George Dennis supplies a near-constant ominous undernote mixed with classical music. As with the set design, it’s almost studiously cool. But the production ends up transcending this, as Frecknall cranks up the tension, embracing the escalating horror of the story, while somehow managing to ground the piece emotionally.
Alongside the brilliant Wilson, Jack Riddiford is wonderfully twitchy as the Duchess’ brother Ferdinand, a man unhealthily obsessed with his twin sister’s honour, radiating rage at what he perceives to be her transgression. He would rather keep her “cased up like a holy relic” than grant her any agency. His descent into madness feels far less tacked-on than is often the case.
Leo Bill is on typically strong form as Bosola, surprisingly sympathetic as the mercenary caught in the middle of this mess. Michael Marcus is slickly dickish as the corrupt Cardinal, the Duchess’ other brother. Abdalla’s Antonio is appealing tender and decent, a man unable to save the people he loves.
The death scenes are horrific and protracted, the women’s bodies twitching on the floor. It takes a long time for them to die. The slow-motion finale, in which the corpses pile up and the stage is stained black with blood, while cinematically ambitious, doesn’t quite come off – it’s hard to see past the choreography of it – but Frecknall’s empathetic staging makes it vividly clear how women so often get trampled by men’s political machinations, and Wilson is a strikingly bright light at the heart of it all.