Director Rebecca Frecknall unlocked Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke with an audacious, tremblingly sensual production featuring seven grand pianos. Now she brings the same imagination and spirit of subversion to John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy – but with less revelatory results. Plays of this genre need speed and succulence. They are murky, lurid, stinking of depravity and horror, grinning with the glee of a death’s head. Frecknall tackles the play with a chilly control and a glacial pace, in a staging designed by Chloe Lamford that is gleaming, clinical, elegant. It is, in its cool way, stunning. But where is the unbridled insanity and the stench of decay? It would take a long time for anything to rot in such a sleek, clean refrigerator of a setting.
Its centrepiece is a glass case, coldly lit, tiled like an antiseptically cleansed bathroom. It is in part a display case in which Lydia Wilson’s pale, blond, lily-like widowed Duchess leads her public – and later her very private – life. It also seems to be a sanctuary from the corruption of the court, hermetically sealed, a place where the Duchess can play, barefoot, with the children she has conceived with the man secretly married, in defiance of her two brothers. Visually, it creates a powerful sense of stifling, of claustrophobia, and it suggests the later madhouse scenes, with its hospital-like environment. Perhaps it’s also a hygienic charnel house, or a morgue. After the women in the play die, one by one, at the hands of men – the Duchess, her servant Cariola, the Cardinal’s lover Julia – they rise up behind the gleaming glass, watchful, accusing.
Wilson is a steely Duchess who seems to have learnt to conceal her warm humanity, sexuality and appetites behind a poised appearance. The scene in which she, flouting convention, proposes marriage to Antonio, her steward and social inferior (Khalid Abdalla) sees her reaching towards his crotch before grasping his finger to push her ring onto it. She faces down her assassins with horrified determination. Her gasped instruction, as she faces a grisly and protracted death by strangulation, to administer medicine to her ailing child is wrenchingly moving. Abdalla is a solid, decent Antonio, principled but ultimately not tough enough for the politically treacherous world in which he operates. Leo Bill as the scheming Bosola, hapless spying instrument of the Duchess’s brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal, is raspily effective, his loyalties torn this way and that. And Jack Riddiford’s Ferdinand is lean and lascivious, with the dissolute air of a washed-up rock star, eyeing his sister with incestuous desire and almost high on the potency of his own moral convictions.
There are false notes. Michael Marcus’ Cardinal fails to make much impression, and as his lover, Julia, Shalini Peiris seems strangely uncomfortable. She gives a fidgety, forced performance that’s short of focus and conviction – and that’s a significant problem in a production that places so much emphasis on the ways in which men exploit, consume and destroy women. Not every visual flourish quite comes off either. Instead of blood, Frecknall and Lamford give us a black, tarry liquid. It’s great to look at, particularly when smeared over shiny glass, but its meaning isn’t quite clear. The climactic violence is presented in balletic slo-mo – again, a striking spectacle that doesn’t deliver the necessary tragic force. Still, the final image is undeniably affecting: the Duchess and Antonio’s young daughter (in place of their son, in Webster’s version) picking her way through the carnage, smearing her hand in the dark gore and turning her questioning gaze on the audience. This is, no question, a supremely stylish rendering of the play. Yet it lacks the death’s head grin and grimness that Webster truly demands.