Shakespeare’s strangest and nastiest play is a kind of black farce where the reckless dash to redemption makes the redemption itself – forgiveness, reconciliation, all is sort of forgiven – seem like an afterthought. Joe Hill-Gibbins is having none of it and dives into the play’s intractable vision of a city, a culture, a world, caught in a spiral of skewed morality with almost indecent relish. It’s all noise and garage music and a tangle of exhausted blow-up sex dolls. And it moves so fast (1 hour 50, no interval) that the lines between sin and retribution and perpetually blurred.
One wonders how much more mileage Hill-Gibbins can get from his video feed (one thinks of the off-stage area – or in this case anti-chamber – in his NT Edward II), from the melding of video and live action, but it gives us those revealing close-ups – a bonus with these actors – and upsets equilibrium, visually and aurally, is a very disorientating way.
One aches for the chaste and decent Isabella (a cracking performance from Romola Garai) plucked from the convent and led to where there can be no coming back without the sacrifice of her soul. But the cruellest twist of all is played out through Duke Vincentio (excellent and creepy Zubin Varla) – in and out of his Friar disguise – as he turns everybody into laboratory animals for the testing of his own warped theories and in so doing loses touch with his own morality.
His tormenting of Isabella with the death of her brother Claudio (Ivanno Jeremiah) is more shockingly calculated than I have ever seen it and leads to a pay-off so cynical that you seriously begin to question if this is what the Bard really intended. Have we been missing the subtext all these years?
Image: Keith Pattison.