Don't be misled by the title. Written in 1612, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi isn't so much interested in the titular duchess and her romance with her steward Antonio as it is in the treacherous, neurotic characters who slither about them. For one thing, the bad guys get all the best lines. Think Tarantino in iambic pentameter.
The modern sensibility of the latest Bell Shakespeare production is largely due to a new rewrite of the play, by Hugh Colman and Alisa Piper, which scrapes off the roughage and boils Webster's text down to its essence. In fact it strikes one as more of an annihilation than an adaptation – any hint that the play wasn't written in 2012 has been dealt with ruthlessly – but the impact of the finished product is undeniable.
Director John Bell stages the action in a black triangular space (design by Stephen Curtis), whose concealed doors and passages lead to smoky nowheres. In the story, the widowed Duchess (Lucy Bell, daughter of John) marries beneath her and has a child or three, in doing so defying her two varyingly wicked brothers, the Judge (Sean O'Shea) and the Cardinal (David Whitney). Ex-criminal Daniel de Bosola (Ben Wood, a man who could land a decisive punch), originally enlisted to spy on the Duchess, becomes entangled in the brothers' cruel and unusual plans for vengeance (with composer Alan John supplying some cruel and unsubtle music).
Both brothers offer their own delicious take on villainy: Whitney's copulatory Cardinal, carrying himself like a chess piece, is Hollywood-perfect, but it's O'Shea's vaguely incestuous Judge, a viperous creation whose every wiry step suggests the gnarled soul within, that steals the show. The unhappy result, though, is that one is left craving more intensity from Bosola, a character literally spotlighted in this version of the play. His ultimate encounter with the Duchess could do with a bit more cold sweat from everyone involved.
The whole affair, however, is excellent – and peek-through-your-eyes horrifying too, at times. It's terrifically exciting to see Bell Shakespeare in this mode: moving with assassin agility through dark, dark territory.