The murky depths of Jacobean drama are chillingly illuminated in Michael Hurst's exhilarating production of a renowned, but seldom staged, 17th-century play by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley.

Adultery, betrayal, debauchery and murder are packed into a taut 80 minutes as the sharply edited text focuses with forensic clarity on the turbulent emotions driving an inexorable descent into psychotic mayhem.

Hurst's superb stagecraft creates an almost claustrophobic sense of intimacy as the blood-curdling action swirls around cabaret-style seating crammed within a small, black-walled studio theatre.

The dramatic tension is heightened by Fiona Armstrong and Jonathan James' lighting design which uses hand-held lights to create eerie chiaroscuro effects with flashes of illumination bringing the faces of the audience into the unfolding chaos.

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The drama is ignited in typically Shakespearean fashion with a headstrong young woman defying parental expectations by following her heart in her choice of lovers. In the role of Beatrice, Anthea Hill carries off mercurial changes in tone as she shifts from dutiful daughter, to manipulative schemer, passionate lover and finally to deranged victim.

A sinister Beauty and the Beast element is added with Mel Odedra's electrifying portrayal of a disfigured manservant who seizes the chance to satisfy his unrequited passions by luring his mistress into a vortex of deceit and violence.

Comic relief is provided when Beatrice's lovestruck suitor, played by Edwin Beats, imposes an absurd virginity test on his bride before undergoing his own transformation as he takes on the vicious rage of cuckolded husband.

Shona Harris establishes an imposing presence as Beatrice's mother and the entire cast bring fluency to the play's intricate and often elaborately poetic language.

Theatre review

What: The Changeling
Where & When: University of Auckland Drama Studio Theatre, to July 7
Touring Auckland venues: Pumphouse Theatre to July 13, Vault, Q Theatre to July 28, Uxbridge Theatre, Howick to August 3
Reviewer: Paul Simei-Barton