Church incense wafts across the stalls and up into the circle as masked and hooded figures wearing crosses and carrying candlesticks pad their way on to the stage. Jamie Lloyd's new production at the Old Vic ramps up the sinister, foetid atmosphere of John Webster's corrupt and Catholic Italy right from the start. Lloyd cleverly shifts the order of the first scene so that the revenge-driven Bosola, returning from a spell served in the galleys for murder, has the opening line, spoken to the Cardinal: 'I do haunt you still.'
Soutra Gilmour's set, a towering three-story construction which is part palace, part cathedral and part an extension of the Old Vic's atmospheric auditorium, stays mostly in the shadows but is illuminated by sudden flashes of light, conjuring up the chiaroscuro effects of early 17th century Italian paintings. However, this isn't a production that relies on Caravaggio-style visual effects alone; the text is always admirably spoken with great clarity and understanding. One or two secondary scenes have been cut but Lloyd knows how to emphasise the key moments and dramatic turningpoints in this very dark and atmospheric play.
The chief pleasure for me is seeing Eve Best back on the stage where she last played opposite Kevin Spacey in O'Neill's A Moon For The Misbegotten. When she first appears on stage in Act One she moves slowly, formally, her face hidden, as if at a funeral procession. But this widowed Duchess is wearing white, not black, and in a flash she has ripped away her veil to reveal a woman who is, in her own words, made of flesh and blood, not alabaster. Best plays her as a merry, sexy, unconventional widow who has no time for the instructions of her brothers Ferdinand and the Cardinal that she should not marry again. There are echoes of her sparkling performance at Shakespeare's Globe last year as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Best is an actress of charismatic power, as she proved playing Hedda Gabler a few years back at the Almeida. Unfortunately, Webster has her bumped off with a whole act to go, and when she's no longer on stage the electricity goes down several notches. Imagine the last half hour of Jerusalem without Mark Rylance. If I was running the country, I would declare Eve Best a National Treasure (like Rylance) and slap an export ban on her.
Webster's play is at its strongest in the first half, with some excellent quasi-Shakespearean scenes of deceit and doubletalk, in which the characters move between text and subtext. The Duchess falls prey to the machinations of Bosola, played with great conviction by Mark Bonnar with a rasping Scottish accent that cuts across the stage like a hacksaw. A villain with pangs of conscience, Bosola is a far more interesting character than the Duchess's two evil brothers and her secret husband. The paranoia and secrecy of Webster's world emerges very clearly in this production; what is missing is the sense of rank and status and the social gulf between the Duchess and the handsome young steward she marries. It's unfortunate that the second half of the play, particularly the last act, dispenses with character and tips over into unrestrained grand guignol with corpses littering the stage. It's a challenge for any director to handle this spree of killing but Lloyd rises to the challenge; I prefer this work to his current production of She Stoops To Conquer at the National, where the comic style is at times uneven.