An attractive Duchess is widowed and prevented from re-marrying by her brothers – one mad and incestuous, the other randy and clerical. But how can she resist falling in love with a strapping younger man and having his babies? All is roses until the incestuous brother finds out and has his minion go after her husband, herself and offspring, killing them off one by one. With its obsession with death, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi at The Old Vic coincides nicely with the opening of Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate Modern – another artist for which death is a source of fascination and inspiration.

The opening sequence takes one’s breath away. Candlelight, hooded figures and a Renaissance dance have one spellbound and in awe. Soutra Gilmour’s stunning multi-tier stage is a feat of architecture and engineering unto itself and by far the most magnificent set I have ever seen. And then the dialogue begins.

I dismissed my inability to completely follow along as my readjusting to the Shakespearean-style vernacular. But it became clear that much of Webster’s verse was lost by the fact that many of the cast were not quite up to scratch vocally. Perhaps I have been spoiled by the intimacies of smaller theatres – I now expect to hear every word and every change in the performers’ cadence.

The exceptions to this were Madeleine Appiah’s strong performance as the Duchess’ maid Cariola and an equally fortified rendering of the Cardinal’s mistress Julia by Irish Roberts.

Tom Bateman is the brawny Antonio, a perfect physical fit for the Duchess’ toy-boy. Him and Best look comfortable together as the newly-weds, but their courtship is skimmed over. The result – the relationship does not have a huge amount of credibility. Incidentally, last summer Best and Bateman starred in two different productions of Much Ado About Nothing: Best at the Globe as Beatrice and Bateman as Claudio in Josie Rourke’s work for the Wyndham’s theatre.

Eve Best is talented and funny but not quite as stupendous as we were hoping for. And as the Duchess, this is meant to be her play but more attention ends up on Bosola – played erratically by Finbar Lynch – servant to Ferdinand. Harry Lloyd acts with passion as the tyrant brother and stands out as the most believable and memorable performance of the evening.

The majority of the cast was a tad superfluous and failed to gel together. It was a shame that the likes of Harry Attwell and Vyelle Croom – actors most certainly not lacking in talent – were not given more opportunity to shine.

James Farncombe’s lighting and the design were by far the play’s best features and created an unforgettable atmosphere. A pitch-black scene between the Duchess and Ferdinand in her prison cell is disorientating and thrilling; the hanging corpses of Antonio and his young son were unbelievably believable and bloody. Fans of the TV series The Tudors will get their aesthetic dose of opulence, licentiousness and candlelight through the period costumes and the humping on Mahogany beds.

With the Old Vic being the institution it is, one wants a lot more than laudable décor. Indeed, assistant director Simon Evans emphasises in the programme how important it was for the actors to clearly expose the text, so that the audience is not seduced by visuals thereby letting the Jacobean language “wash over them”. Such a pity that this production did not succeed in doing that.

The Duchess of Malfi runs until June 9.