Love’s Sacrifice, Swan Theatre, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon
Rating: *** By Colin Davison @IamColinDavisonI couldn’t help but think of recent election speeches as I read one commentator’s verdict on this 400-year-old thriller of vows made and broken.
And just as a politician might pledge policies without spelling out their consequences, Bianca – the central character in John Ford’s somewhat unjustly neglected play – makes a vow to her lover that would inevitably mean breaking her oath to her husband.
Ford, a favourite playwright of Charles I, based his work on the true story of the aristocratic composer Gesualdo, who killed his wife and lover after finding them in bed.
The play makes obvious references too to Othello, to Twelfth Night in the Malvolio-like buffoon Mauruccio, played with poncy aplomb by Matthew Kelly, and in its final deadly twist to Romeo and Juliet.
The many sub-plots, extended by back-story dumb shows, make for a rather languid first half, but the climactic ending, sharp dialogue and many-faced characters show why the RSC chose this from among 16 plays suggested by academics for possibly its first-ever professional performance.
Matthew Needham excels as the unstable, cuckolded Duke, frivolous and choleric by turns, eyes going in one direction while his murderous thoughts run amok in another.
Particularly impressive are the late will-he won’t-he scenes as the Duke ponders revenge, after Catrin Stewart’s Bianca sets out an impassioned, surprisingly modern-sounding manifesto for her freedom of action.
An edgy musical accompaniment and an atmospheric set that combines images of church and court adds to the drama.
Love’s Sacrifice continues until June 24. Tickets: 0844 800 1110 and online.