It has been said that there are two good reasons to update an old play: to show how much things have changed, and to show how little things have changed.
And so Rebecca Frecknall’s production of John Webster’s 1614 bloodthirsty tragedy, in which the wardrobe is modern-dress and the set (designed by Chloe Lamford) is dominated by a glass room in which protagonists are displayed like museum exhibits, invites its audience to ask what it is about Webster’s world that we recognise in ours.
And the answer that emerges over the course of nearly three hours is precious little. For the plot refuses to be budged from its original setting.
Lydia Wilson’s barefooted Duchess is banned from remarrying by her brothers, the Cardinal (a serenely aloof Michael Marcus) and most fervently his younger brother Ferdinand (a feverish Jack Riddiford) who is also the Duchess’s twin.
This is a world in which religious and political conventions serve as fig-leafs for the misogynistic sadism of male rulers. Yet in updating the work to a time that looks and feels like today (though Webster’s language largely remains) Frecknall opts to jettison to almost nothing the two driving forces in the play — religion and Ferdinand’s incestuous jealousy, diminished to one attempted kiss.
Granted, the acting is very good. Riddiford’s unhinged Ferdinand is in a permanent cold sweat as he drinks his way through the action, exuding self-loathing through every pore. Leo Bill is also excellent as good hearted Bosolo who is also brimful of self-hatred for being corrupted by Ferdinand into being his spy and then assassin. Meanwhile, Wilson is in total command in the role that projects Webster into that rare as hens teeth genre of Jacobean feminist playwright.
Her Duchess, who rises above the male sadism that attempts to control her, has just one blameless wish — to live an ordinary life, a condition personified by Khalid Abdalla’s very nice Antonio, the kind of fellow parents wish on their daughters.
Yet still, a credibility gap remains with this updating. It is not that misogyny and religion are not very much alive today. But the barbarity of Webster’s bloodletting needs a political context in which it exist.
And, by removing it, this stylish evening never answers the two questions that haunt it throughout: who are these people, and where do they actually live?