Renaissance Italy (or is it modern Italy, or indeed a blend of both?) The main character is Vindice who lives away from the court. The Duke poisoned Vindice's beloved nine years ago because she resisted him. His father has recently died from the Duke's unkindness. Vindice learns from his brother Hippolito that the Duke's eldest son Lussurioso is looking for an unscrupulous servant. He disguises himself with the name Piato and gets the job, which he finds involves seducing for Lussurioso his and Hippolito's chaste sister Castiza. The Duchess had three sons by a previous marriage, the Duke has one bastard, Spurio. Her Younger Son has raped the wife of a lord, Antonio; the woman killed herself, the Son is now in prison. The Duchess is wooing Spurio. Vindice is happy to find that Castiza is incorruptible, shocked to find their Mother eager to change her mind (she later repents). He reports to Lussurioso that he overheard the Duchess and Spurio agreeing to sleep together; Lussurioso breaks into the bedroom but find the Duke, his Father, with the Duchess. He is arrested for attempted assassination. The Duchess's two other sons hate Lussurioso; they forge an order for their "Brother's" execution. Only the Duke has forgiven Lussurioso and set him free; the only "Brother" remaining in prison is their Younger Brother, who is duly executed. The Duke asks Vindice to find him a chaste woman he can corrupt. In a secret place, Vindice gets the Duke to kiss a mask containing the skull of his own dead lady. Poison is hidden in its mouth, and as the Duke slowly dies he sees his wife and Spurio together. Lussurioso sacks "Piato" for his mistake and Vindice offers to "take his place" under his own name. His first job is to murder Piato. He and Hippolito dress the Duke's body in Piato's clothes and Piato is assumed to have escaped after killing him. Lussurioso becomes Duke, banishes the Duchess, and throws a party. Vindice and Hippolito play a masque, during which they kill Lussurioso and his three companions. The Duchess's sons with Spurio, arriving with a similar plan, find Lussurioso dead and kill each other over their claims to be Duke. Antonio becomes Duke and tries to understand what has happened. Vindice hopes to be praised by Antonio, assuming that he too wanted revenge, and boastfully tells what they did. Antonio fears for his own life and orders their immediate execution.
OK, I admit it, I was expecting to be bored rigid by this play. But even I'm allowed to be wrong sometimes. Having almost literally thrown myself in my seat after the route march from Waterloo station (when going to the theatre with Him Indoors, one is late at one's peril), I was fighting to regain my breath when I had what little was left of it taken away by the wonderful opening of this production. Loud, funky music of the kind that I am occasionally to be found bopping away like a loon to on a Saturday night out was totally unexpected but counterpointed the vaguely period sets and modern costumes wonderfully. So, here we have our revolving set, the stage divided into three equal segments like bits of a cake. Make each of the dividing lines a corridor running between two adjacent pieces. Set the stage turning, and people the rooms and corridors with libertines, drug takers, sexual predators and victims, oral sex, dark intrigue, corruption, rape, blackmail and other types of human vice, and you have an overview of complete depravity spiralling out of control - rather like the palace scene in Rigoletto should be, but rarely is. Set all this in front of a courtroom fresco of Truth and Evidence, or a luscious red leather banquette topped with a column carrying a statue of the Virgin, and the irony becomes almost unbearable. I loved the way that all this lush depravity was contrasted with the stark, poverty-struck simplicity of Gratiana's home, the walls decorated only with the non-faded squares of wallpaper over which family portraits had previously hung. The one remaining picture - all that could be salvaged from the wreckage- had been stripped of its valuable frame which left only its ghost behind. Neither had the bookshelves survived - their the remains of their treasured cargo piled up around the fringes of the room like flotsam. One particular piece of direction that I particularly appreciated was the "epilogue" after the text comes to its end - updates of several of the characters and how they react to the various pieces of news that come their way, for good or ill, were presented in mime, and rounded off the shocking, rather sudden ending perfectly.
Anyway, loved the costumes as well - most of them had that "sad fashion victim" look about them - silver trainers, winkle pickers, skinny cut jeans, suit jackets with the sleeves rolled up, contrasting well with the "slimy executive look" of over-shiny suits and highly polished shoes, with tie and hanky matching.
Of the players, two come away with my "TWCDNW" (They Who Can Do No Wrong) award I have recently instigated. Rory Kinnear goes from strength to strength as regards both his ability to act almost everyone else off the stage and to flash up different facets of a character like a brightly-lit diamond, with the shadows just as brilliantly highlighted. I've loved Barbara Flynn ever since I first saw the TV adaptation of The Barchester Chronicles many years ago - you may well have seen her in several period series since, such as Cranford and He Knew He Was Right, as well as playing Rene Zelleweger's mother in the film Miss Potter, or from her TV voiceover work, and she gave an excellent, funny and moving account of her character here (even though I did (briefly) mistake her for Zoe Wannamaker!). Also brilliant was Elliot Cowan as the sexually and politically ambiguous Lussurioso and Jamie Parker as Hippolito. Given such a generally good looking cast, it was difficult to see how Katherine Manners' Castiza could have inspired such lust, as I thought she would have been more suited to portraying one of the runners in the 3.40 from Haydock.
Add a (mostly) brilliant cast to great sets, interesting costumes, gore by the bucket and deaths by the dozen, and its hard indeed to see why the couple in front failed to return to their seats after the interval.
What the critics thought: