The Tarantino of Jacobean melodrama goes to the dogs

<i>The Duchess of Malfi </i>| Barbican Theatre, London <i>In Extremis/De Profundis </i>| RNT Cottesloe, London <i>Smoking with Lulu </i>| West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
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Line 'em up: a macabre severed hand; strangled aristocratic wives and babes; a Machiavellian cardinal wielding a poison-coated Bible and a frenzy of stabbing. John Webster, the Tarantino of Jacobean drama, liked to pile on the atrocities. And certainly, in a raw and feverish production, that can build into a potently grim vision of top-rank corruption.

Line 'em up: a macabre severed hand; strangled aristocratic wives and babes; a Machiavellian cardinal wielding a poison-coated Bible and a frenzy of stabbing. John Webster, the Tarantino of Jacobean drama, liked to pile on the atrocities. And certainly, in a raw and feverish production, that can build into a potently grim vision of top-rank corruption.

Unfortunately, Gale Edwards' new RSC staging of The Duchess Of Malfi is simply lame. This production is playing at the Barbican with Aisling O'Sullivan as the titular tragic heroine who rejects her brother Ferdinand's sexually repressive orders, secretly marries her steward, Antonio, and pays dearly for it.

O'Sullivan's palace - designed by Peter J Davison - is an abominable mess for starters. Perhaps relocated in the Duchy of Makeshift, it looks like a low-budget airport (steel scaffolding and sheet-plastic panes) with one rogue neo-classical column nicked from a Victorian train station.

Then there's Colin Tierney risibly playing the villainous Ferdinand, darting around in a half-squat as if permanently negotiating manholes and apparently modelling his voice on Peter Sellers' clipped and yelping send-up of Olivier's Richard III. Richard Lintern, as Antonio, manages to invest moral goodness with certain vigour and O'Sullivan's red-haired Duchess has some winning fond scenes with him, lolling in her bed chamber. However, her speeches - delivered in a strained, plummy accent - often sound stiff. As her punishments escalate and she's separated from her husband and infants, she proves an impressively strong woman but lacks any pathos-generating tenderness.

Tom Mannion, who only joined the production a couple of weeks ago (replacing a company member who fell ill) in fact outshines everyone else. As the malcontent double agent Bosola, he mixes dangerous bitterness with some much needed black humour.

At the Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre, another tragic fall is on the cards in a new biodrama written by Neil Bartlett. In Extremis is a short, stylised two-hander about Oscar Wilde, commissioned to mark the centenary of the great Irish aesthete's death.

Bartlett homes in on a mysterious meeting between Wilde (Corin Redgrave) and a society palm-reader, Mrs Robinson (Sheila Hancock). As Wilde recorded in a telegram, he sought her out in late March 1895. That was just days before his court case against the Marquis of Queensberry which notoriously ended in the playwright being incarcerated in Reading jail for his homosexuality. Mrs Robinson apparently predicted a triumph which - In Extremis surmises - could have ruinously bolstered Wilde's confidence and stopped him fleeing the country.

What Bartlett underlines is not just the dubious nature of oracles but the subjectivity of hindsight and the impenetrability of theatrics. This is a history play that embraces poetic licence, as Hancock and Redgrave prove unreliable witnesses. Her Robinson, respectably robed in velvet but letting slip cockney vowels, is part-charlatan. Her prologue teasingly remarks that we've only her word for what Wilde said that night.

Unsettlingly as well, the details of Philippe Brandt's fine period set and costumes - from plush drapes to tie pins - don't quite match Robinson's reminiscences. Further alternative versions of reality are suggested as, after revelatory speeches, both characters declare they actually said nothing of the kind.

This conceit is quite clever. In Extremis is putting into practice Wilde's own declaration that, "the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it." Simultaneously, Bartlett is pointing up the masks employed in life as in art. The drawback is that this script spells out its themes so directly that the human drama often seems to be vanishing up its own self-analysis.

Still, Redgrave and Trevor Nunn's joint production is commendably honed, Hancock is entertainingly spry, and the piece connects up thematically - in a before and after-style double bill - with Redgrave's performance of De Profundis. Wilde's epic letter, written in prison to his ex-beloved Lord Alfred Douglas and here edited by Merlin Holland, proves a more moving piece, even though it's simply a monologue performed on a bare, stone-flagged stage.

Wilde's ruminations (with most of the Christian pieties cut out) are full of pained and philosophical eloquence, and his memories of Douglas's selfish behaviour are shockingly vivid. Redgrave does take a while to become convincingly emotional and his is a flattering portrait, playing down the letter's reproachfulness and outbursts of vanity. Ultimately though, this Wilde's spirit of resilience and new-found frankness are touchingly persuasive.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Canadian newcomer Janet Munsil's Smoking with Lulu, we find another legendary playhouse creature - the critic Kenneth Tynan (reincarnated by Peter Eyre). He's engaged in a peculiarly intimate interview with his long-standing fantasy woman, Louise Brooks. She was the sexy, hedonistic and strong-willed silent movie star who played the wanton Lulu in G W Pabst's 1928 film, Pandora's Box. Soon after that she vanished from the scene, supposedly refusing to service lecherous Hollywood producers who didn't take her fancy.

Munsil's vision is loosely based on Tynan's enamoured profile of Brooks, printed in the New Yorker in 1979, just a year before he died of emphysema. The Kansas-born silver screen beauty was, by the time Tynan met her, a bedridden septuagenarian being slowly destroyed by the same disease.

Munsil's script drifts along rather formlessly and the dream sequences - wherein Tynan imagines having a kinky affair with the young Brooks (Sophie Millett) - are underdeveloped. Yet the clips of Brooks's vintage films, flickering on a giant screen behind him, are arrestingly erotic. Eyre is slightly too woebegone and low on charisma, but he has a lovely mellifluousness and gentle warmth. And Barlow is a wonderfully game old bird: comically cranky, tetchy, witty and still sexually outré. She's no-nonsense, dismissing Tynan's eulogies whilst, nevertheless, shifting from wariness to something approaching unspoken love.

Directed in the WYP's studio space by David Giles, this is a quietly poignant, amusing and mournful play that perceives how professional meetings become entangled with personal attractions and which muses on the difference between media icons and their imperfect real lives.

'The Duchess Of Malfi': Barbican Theatre, EC2 (020 7638 8891), to 18 November; 'In Extremis'/'De Profundis': Royal National Theatre Cottesloe, SE1 (020 7452 3000), to 16 December; 'Smoking with Lulu': West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds (0113 213 7700), to 2 December

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