Cheek by Jowl’s collaboration with the Piccolo Teatro di Milano opens with a blast of high church, high-camp bravado. The Duke (Massimiliano Speziani) and his family receive the Eucharist while Vindice (Fausto Cabra) lurks in the shadows exclaiming their sins to the audience, before the whole thing explodes into a ludicrous dance and the word ‘Vendetta’ is splurged on to Nick Ormerod’s blood-red set.
Directed by Declan Donnellan, and performed in Italian using a text by Stefano Massini, the rest never quite replicates that initial bolt of deliciously ridiculous tragicomedy, but it does maintain a knowing wink towards Thomas Middleton’s tit-for-tat story of murder and revenge.
The fundamental plot, wherein Cabra’s excellent, skulking Vindice seeks retribution for the death of his fiancée, barely matters. Freed from its Jacobean setting, the world of the play is a mash-up of old-school Italian traditions – the Sicilian-looking mother in a pious black blouse hanging out the starched white sheets – and the sleazy, corrupt world of a political elite in streamlined suits with gelled-up hair.
The palatial décor, however, hints that the rot among the ruling classes harks back generations, with oversized images of Piero della Francesca’s stony-faced Duke and Duchess of Urbino projected on to the walls.
The point here is the corrupting, decadent misuse of power and how quickly that reaches a fever-pitch level of unbelievability. After a poisoning involving kissing a corpse, a decapitated head in a cool box and a faked murder using a real dead body, there’s nothing left to do but dance.