The poster and programme for The Duchess of Malfi at the National Theatre show a grainy, modern photo of the eponymous Duchess, her husband and their children caught off-guard, in transit, like a tabloid snap. Only the Duchess looks out at us and, in her face, half-hidden behind dark glasses, is that fraught mingling of resentment, resignation and mute appeal we regularly see in newspaper pictures of beleaguered celebrities and royalty. With this choice, the director, Phyllida Lloyd, draws an immediate and arresting parallel between the world of the play and the world today, and every element of her splendid production goes on to reinforce it.
The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster's Jacobean revenge tragedy, is bloody, brutal and devoid of redemption. A grimly moral tale that ends with an almost laughable pile-up of corpses, it is easy to see how less skilful hands might sacrifice the remarkable beauty of its language to the unremitting violence of its plot. Under Lloyd's fluid, intelligent direction, however, in modern dress and with frank, unpretentious delivery, this excellent cast manages to make every word and intention clear, direct and thrillingly contemporary. The play is brought to vivid life in a way that few productions of classic texts succeed in doing.
Janet McTeer is a passionate and deeply sympathetic Duchess, regal yet painfully human in her portrayal of a rebellious widow forbidden by her malign brothers to remarry lest they lose their potential fortune and their peculiar claim on her. Her disobedience suggests warmth and love rather than sin or folly, and her resolution to her course of action, despite the tragic sequence of events that it precipitates, seems desperately brave. Rollicking from the role of sensuous seductress to grieving mother and wronged sister, driven towards madness yet clinging to dignity, she is moving and convincing throughout. As such she commands the stage and the play loses power after the Duchess's demise.
But Will Keen matches her manfully as Ferdinand, her twin brother, driven from feverish paranoia to real insanity by his incestuous lust for his sister. From his first appearance, addressing the court through a microphone like a cocky, coked-up master of ceremonies, Keen gives a mesmerising performance as a man spiralling into lunacy, though his staccato speech patterns seems mannered after a while.
Ray Stevenson is coolly Machiavellian as the other brother, the pious and hypocritical Cardinal, and Lorcan Cranitch is an ambiguous Bosola, the spy planted by the brothers who wreaks a bloodthirsty revenge on their behalf. Charles Edwards makes an appealing, romantic Antonio, the Duchess's low-born love, unable to resist her advances and absolutely true in his response, but ultimately ill-equipped to deal with the resulting horrors.
Mark Thompson's stark set, with lighting rigs exposed and shadowy raked seating at the back to which the characters repair, wraith-like, when dead or absent, is complemented by Mark Henderson's superbly judged lighting. With these impressive design elements, Lloyd's production is able to unnerve and shock an audience largely inured to violence. When Bosola attempts to send the Duchess mad, for example, a repetitive sequence of disturbing images is projected on a screen, an agonising cacophony fills the auditorium, and we are plunged into a frightening darkness. After the lights come up again, the bodies of the Duchess's husband and son are hanging dead before her eyes. We are as duped by this illusion as she is, participants in, rather than indifferent observers of her tragedy.
The lighter moments are equally well conjured - the love scenes between Antonio and the Duchess, and particularly the naturalistic scene in which the lovers and their confidante Cariola (Sally Rogers) banter playfully in the bedroom before they are discovered and undone.
Even the most scintillating drama, however, is hard to sustain for two and a quarter hours. The decision not to have an interval was perhaps to avoid disrupting the Duchess's ordeal by putting one before her death or betraying the play's loss of momentum after she has left the stage. However, I think the audience needs a break from the bloody course of the play, which begins to feel unstructured as it progresses without respite. That said, this is a strong production and it just about gets away with it. The cast's vitality compensates for the absence of an interval drink.
The Duchess of Malfi is at the National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 300) until 27 May
Sheridan Morley returns next week