As soon as the house lights darken in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, we feel a deep sense of foreboding: the Playhouse, lit only by candles, makes for a highly atmospheric setting for this play of sexual intrigue and murder, while eerie, scratchy violins, which form most of the performance’s soundtrack, build on this tension. The candlelight, which is extinguished at strategic points during the production, fosters this intimacy created by the proximity of the audience to the stage: when the lights go out, we are just as in the dark – literally and figuratively – as the characters themselves.
Hattie Morahan’s Beatrice-Joanna seemed on the brink of neurosis from the beginning of the play, slowly descending into complete insanity. She seems constantly out of her depth and bewildered by what is happening around her – when De Flores makes it clear that he will accept nothing other than sex as payment for her fiancé’s murder, the consequences of her actions seem only now to begin to dawn on her: ‘murder, I see, is followed by more sins.’ Her relationship with De Flores was characterised throughout by its intensity – from a deep loathing, stemming seemingly from nowhere, to a kind of distorted love, as she begins to see him as the only person on her side. De Flores, despite his unappealing physical appearance, is by no means the revolting creature in Middleton’s text; instead, Trystan Gravelle portrays him sympathetically, as a misled man who would do anything for the woman he loves.
This is not a production which shies away from the visceral nature of Middleton’s text, instead almost revelling in the violent and sexual acts the characters commit: Alonzo’s murder is as drawn out and bloody as it could be, with the frantic, screeching violins mingling with his shouts for help. Diaphanta’s murder, which, unlike Alonzo’s, occurs off-stage, is presumably just as bloody – when she returns, as Alonzo does, as a ghost, her nightgown is burnt and saturated with blood. In one particularly memorable scene, we witness De Flores coming up behind Beatrice-Joanna to exact his sexual ‘payment’ for her murderous request, shortly followed by Alonzo’s blood-smeared ghost, whose grisly appearance behind De Flores both acts as a physical representation of their guilt, and reminds us how closely De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna are now bonded by this deadly secret.
Alongside Middleton’s scenes of intense violence and sexuality lies Rowley’s comic subplot, concerning a jealous doctor and his young wife – in some productions, the two narratives can feel out of sync, but Dromgoole has woven them together well, and these scenes are brilliantly executed, providing comic relief from the drama of the main plot: Pearce Quigley’s Lollio was particularly funny, getting a laugh with almost every line. The action of the subplot at times verges on the farcical, but this only serves to highlight the intensity of every aspect of this play: whether the scene is violent or sexual, comic or tragic, this is a production that is not afraid to sink its teeth in.