Having eloped for love with a merchant's clerk, Bianca, a young woman of wealthy family, finds herself locked up like a secret possession. Liberation comes in the dubious shape of the Duke who first rapes her and then ravishes her with the size of his fortune.
Because she is being forced into an arranged marriage with the rich but cretinous Ward, the virtuous Isabella is particularly susceptible to a trick that propels her, under false pretences, into the bed of the man who is her uncle. As for Livia, the middle-aged, twice-widowed woman of means who is the bawd in these unsavoury arrangements, her behaviour can't be excused, but it can be partly explained as the proxy continuation of her own sex life and as the prostitution of a high intelligence that can't find another outlet. She wastes her relative freedom on doing men's dirty business.
Full of flair and flamboyance, Laurence Boswell's splendid revival maintains a masterly control of the play's range of moods - the black humour and the moral horror of it. The brazen snorts of Tim Sutton's excellent music add a caustic commentary to a production which gives the play a Jacobean setting, though with little nods to modernity in the rich, inventive costuming (a doublet, say, with hints of the hoodie) that suggest an overlap of values between Middleton's world and our own.
In the role of Livia, Penelope Wilton is a magnificently witty and amused predator. She bears down on the poor Widow (a lovely study of frayed social insecurity by Susan Engel) with a beamingly draconian hospitality that would intimidate Genghis Khan. She also, in the fond gestures and kisses that stray beyond the sisterly, indicates an unconscious incestuous passion for Rob Edwards' guilt-racked Hippolito.
Boswell valuably brings out the Pirandello-esque quality in this gory charade. Highly recommended.
To 1 April (0870 609 1110)
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