For all its exquisite poetic gems, Webster's play is plotted by numbers, and very few numbers at that. It is the Jacobean equivalent of Dallas - dirty dealings amongst the rich and powerful, a glamour soap spiced with the unpleasantness of human nature. It offered its contemporary audience a slice of grotesquely violent escapism which revels in man's selfishness and duplicity: a Jacobean Reservoir Dogs encrusted with poetry of sufficient memorability as to furnish forth a thousand thriller titles.
However, modern spectators can get their fix of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" thrice weekly through the ether, and therefore expect a little more food for thought from their nights out. Kate Brooke's directorial conceit to spice up Webster's blood and gore lies in drawing parallels with present-day "Duchesses". The modernist interior set, the swarming paparazzi and the Camelot era costumes and songs place the Duchess firmly and unsubtly alongside Jackie Kennedy and Princess Diana. Yet the attempt to merge the Jacobean and contemporary strands is half-hearted and, in the end, unsuccessful. The modern dress is bizarrely accessorised with frilly collars and floppy velvet hats, and it overstretches credibility to infest the stage with reporters crying "the people want to know" when the script dictates that the Duchess manages to marry and have three children without anyone finding out about it. Overall, the Sixties-cum-Nineties setting feels like an ill-fitting jacket squeezed onto Webster's play to give it more "contemporary relevance".
The production's other major flaw lies in its central romance. John Griffin's Antonio is simply a total drip, and no self-respecting duchess would give him a second glance. He may be an accountant, but that does not mean he should be grey and dull. Stuck with a lover with no appealing characteristics whatsoever, Tanya Ronder is required to make the relationship believable through her performance alone. Cracking her haughty grandeur with love- struck smiles, she very nearly succeeds in convincing us that this woman would risk all for this drone, so that her graphic descent into dulled madness and contended resignation to death at least vergers on the credible.
Complementing her sharp-edged and sweet-natured portrayal of a woman in love, Jonathan Wrather expertly rides the rollercoaster of her brother Ferdinand's enflamed emotions, bringing believability to the character's psychotic twists and turns. Justin Shevlin's Bosola scuttles across the stage like a spider, clinging to walls in clouds of black malevolence, and he gives the character's shift from self-seeking murderer to righteous revenger considerably more depth than the script alone might suggest.
These finely crafted performances struggle beneath the mantle of an unfocussed directorial concept which serves only to confuse, not enlighten. The Duchess of Malfi may contain superficial parallels to 20th-century events - but it is debatable whether the simple plot can bear the weighty superstructure of such direct "contemporisation".
To 21 March, Ustinov Studio (01225 448844) and touring.Reuse content