Barbican, then touring and Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare is so much our contemporary that it can be a shock to encounter some of the Jacobean playwrights. Theirs really is a different world, apparently run according to its own psychological rules.
Gale Edwards has placed her production for the RSC in a non-place and time. Aisling O'Sullivan,who plays the wronged Duchess in this, her RSC debut, describes the play as being "in its own time". The trouble is, it can't really make sense in any other than the one in which it was written, the early 17th century. Students of the play will have enjoyed the in-joke when Tom Stoppard presented Webster as a naughty little boy with a wicked grin and a penchant for beheading rats in the film Shakespeare in Love. Webster is firmly in the blood-and-guts tradition of Jacobean revenge tragedy, while at the same time plumbing his characters' disturbed psyches and producing some fine poetry. The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil are two of the most sinister and bloodthirsty plays in English - Quentin Tarantino could take lessons from them.
This is the story: the beautiful young Duchess, recently widowed, secretly declares her love for her steward, Antonio. They are married, despite knowing that her two brothers, Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria, and the Cardinal, are set against their sister's remarriage. The couple live together safely for some years and have three children. Meanwhile, the discontented Bosola has recently retuned to Amalfi from the galleys and is employed to spy on the Duchess. He betrays her to her brothers and, in an attempt to escape the threatened vengeance of Ferdinand, Antonio and his eldest son flee to Milan. The Duchess, imprisoned with her younger children, is driven near to madness when shown a vision of her dead husband and child before she is strangled and her children killed.
Ferdinand begins to lose his wits, Antonio is murdered, the Cardinal's mistress is poisoned by her lover (while kissing a prayer book) and the Duchess' two brothers both die bloodily, as does Bosola. During the proceedings, as is common in Jacobean drama, madmen are observed behaving madly in an asylum, probably for the pleasure of the audience.
It is not easy to make all this credible in 2000 and the madmen's interlude, in particular, seems odd anywhere but in its own time. Aisling O'Sullivan is a dignified and anguished Duchess, however, although her elocuted tones seemed more artificial than in her performances elsewhere.
The choice of costumes often hampers the actors. The Duchess is so obviously pregnant that Bosola's tricking her to reveal her condition is quite unnecessary. Ferdinand (Colin Tierney) looks like a rock star on a bad trip in his leathers. It is Tom Mannion as Bosola who rises above all this. Disaffected to begin with, sinister and clever, he is a credible, rounded, confused human being whose late remorse manages to be moving amid the mayhem.
Tour information: 01789 403440. More plays reviewed at: www.tes.co.uk