Blood, sex and violence - pupils will love Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, says the director of a new production. Aleks Sierz reports
The Jacobean dramatist John Webster was, according to the poet and critic TS Eliot, "much possessed by deathAnd saw the skull beneath the skin". But Webster's 1619 tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, says director Phyllida Lloyd, is also "a wonderfully accessible play which young people will find enthralling and easy to follow".
The young Duchess of Malfi, a "lusty widow", decides to marry her lower-class steward Antonio in secret and in defiance of her two brothers, the Duke Ferdinand and the Cardinal. But, betrayed by the malcontent Bosola, who has been placed in her house as a spy, the Duchess and Antonio suffer the awful vengeance of the brothers.
Lloyd's version is set "in the late 20th century, and it will feel modern".
The play "speaks very vividly of a recognisable society, with intense power struggles in a ruling family, the tyranny of one social class, sexual politics, corruption in the Catholic church - it's a savage world that resonates with our own."
Ever since she studied the play at school, Lloyd has loved it "more as a poem, with all its imagery" than as a stage play. It has a difficult structure, she admits, and the fact that the central character dies before the last act is problematic, but it also has, she believes, some of the greatest scenes in English theatre.
As well as Jacobean blood and gore and "beastliness", Lloyd stresses that there is "a lot of humour, compassion and domestic detail - with tender, sexy, intimate writing - in the play". Webster, she argues, set the play in Italy "because he would never have got away with staging a critical view of power politics in England". He saw clearly that the "court was corrupt and that James I was prey to a bunch of flattering sycophantic courtiers - Webster saw England as a police state".
The cliched view of the Duchess is that "she is somebody who is patient in adversity, but there's a lot more to her than that. She is also a rebellious character who puts up two fingers to the threats and 'frightenings' that her brothers impose on her - she follows her own sexual passions."
She is "reckless, sensual but very funny too". Nor should one forget that she can be "tender and maternal - when she is about to be strangled, she thinks of her children". At the end, she behaves with "incredible courage and imagination - as innocent victims often do in our world too".
In Lloyd's version, the play's haunting poetry is matched by the Duchess's humanity and relevance.
In rep at the Lyttleton Theatre, London until May 27, touring March-April Tickets: 020 7452 3000 www.nationaltheatre.org.uk