The Revenger's Tragedy
NATIONAL THEATRE, LONDON
rrhomas Middleton's The Revengers Tragedy from 1606 at the Olivier opens with a massive clap of sound from the musicians, ushering in a very highpitched evening indeed. I expected artificial resuscitation for the faint-hearted. One man near me jumped, and looked decidedly queasy, and it must be admitted that the next 10 minutes of rolling orgy and excess did not reduce his chances of a seizure. Jacobean tragedy can be tough going for those of a sensitive disposition. Melly Still's innovative direction is gripping and startling and — for the strong-hearted at least — it is a rewarding and enjoyable experience.
Scholars argue that The Revenger 's Tragedy tells us much about the birth of the modem world-view, gender politics and "carnival". Very , likely! There are certainly some extraordinary and insightful exchanges. The tearful reconciliation between two hard-done-by sons and their mercenary mother (Barbara Flyrui) towards the end of the evening is profound and beautiful, as is a related scene between mother and daughter. However, the audience receive the play with a sense of excitement instead of sobriety, expecting anything as the evening zips along at a tremendous pace.
The central character keeps the skull of his murdered lover in what appears to be a shoe-box, using the skull in a vengeful hoax to get the killer to kiss poisoned teeth. It is gruesome and ridiculous, and one knows from the outset that most of these characters are going to get slaughtered, often in peculiar circumstances. It is cold comedy, and the aristocratic bedlam is absurd in the range of its crazed extravagances and passions. The acting at the Olivier is often marvehously vivid. I liked Elliot Cowan's fantastically over-excitable and sexually demented Lussurioso, the heir to the dukedom. It is his lust for Castiza (Katherine Manners) that drives the secondary plot forward, for she is fortunate in having two equally excitable brothers, Vindice (the one with his girlfriend's head in a box) and Hippolito, determined to stop him. Lussurioso is terrifically dangerous and preposterous. We fear him, and laugh at him. Among the other actors, Billy Carter has a cleverly drawn, guttural villainy as Spurio, the Duke's bastard son. There is also a swaggering minor performance from Tommy Luther as a posh debaucher dragged off to execution by mistake. His head turns up later; not in a box, but in a bag. The circumstance of its discovery is both shocking and comedic.
The Revenger 's Tragedy is a vicious commentary on the madness of male desire, and an early statement on the rights of women. However, the brilliance of this production is Melly Still's ability to keep the serious issues to the forefront while allowing us space to enjoy the chilly excitement and fun around the edges. Out in front, in a flawless performance, is the exemplary Rory Kinnear as Vindice, the grieving lover and outraged brother. He swings between drollery vengeful determination, but he is always in terrifying control. The scene where the Duke (the excellent Ken Bones) is fooled into kissing his skeletal mistress must be one of the most extraordinary in British drama, and Kinnear plays it perfectly between high tragedy and vaudeville.
The show teems with contradictory ideas, startling effects, arresting design and intelligent acting. The design by Ti Green and Melly Still succeeds in giving the evening remarkable fluidity. As a boy suffering revivals of Dear Octopus and An Inspector Calls at the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon, I used to dream that I might one day see productions like this. It will, I hope, be .remembered as a fine example in how to stage complex Jacobean drama while upping the adrenalin. There are strong themes of loyalty and obsession, and issues of gender, but we are neither distracted nor offended when this dazzling production plays the comic-book roughand-tumble for all it is worth.