June 4, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

The Revenger’s Tragedy @ The National Theatre

The 2008 Middleton Renaissance is underway with two new productions of The Revenger’s Tragedy opening simultaneously at opposite ends of the country. The professional critics saw the Manchester production first, but I’m working the other way round, last night catching the National’s new interpretation.

The National went to great lengths to emphasise and jazz up Middleton’s image. A pre-show platform talk by Gary Taylor, editor of the new Oxford Middleton, spent 45 minutes explaining why Middleton is at least as good as Shakespeare. Meanwhile, for the production itself, they had hired several dancer/performers from one of the most fashionable productions of the last twelve months, Punch Drunk’s The Masque of the Red Death, as well as DJ duo differentGear to provide a live soundtrack. It sounded somewhat like the institution trying to get down with the kids, but in fact was superbly executed, fusing modern and traditional styles to produce an original and spectacular show.

An explosion of deafening noise began the production, its suddenness drawing shrieks from the audience. On stage, Ti Green and Melly Still’s three part set revolved. One part, a simply furnished room, filled with books and dominated by Caravaggio’s St Jerome Writing, represented Vindice’s home. Another, with plastic red furniture and ceiling-high Bacchic murals, and a third more austere and formal space, made up the remainder of the set. As the set revolved to deafening house beats, a manic orgy began to celebrate the Duke and Duchess’s 1-year anniversary. Near-naked revellers gyrated, masked dancers turned cartwheels, the Duchess’s sons hid in corridors between the different sets and copulated graphically with the animalistic partygoers. In one room, with others standing guard, Antonio’s wife was raped in full view of the audience by the Duchess’s youngest son. Throughout all this, whenever the stage completed a full rotation, Vindice could be seen glowering in an armchair, in shadowed solitude, while the Duke and Duchess joined their party. It was an audacious and powerful opening that, in one long dumbshow, established the key players, the most important crimes and the hedonistic atmosphere of the place. Played in modern dress, this was a court modelled on that created by Julie Taymor in her Titus, a debauched S&M fantasyland of overprivileged, morally-bankrupt pretty young things.

The modern setting complemented Middleton’s very modern writing, which was most apparent in Rory Kinnear’s central outstanding performance as Vindice. Beginning with straggly hair and beard, then shaving both and adopting a Cockney geezer accent to become the sleazy lackey Piato, Kinnear dominated the play throughout. Crucially, he expertly balanced the role’s deadpan comedy with the sober and committed drive to revenge. Both sides came out to great effect in his relationship with the skull of his dead fiance, Gloriana, kept in a chest in his room. Speaking to it in his first scene, we saw his near-mad fascination with death and retribution, yet visually the scene remained amusing. In the trick later played on the Duke – where he attached the skull to the head of a dress and manipulated her as a life-size puppet – Kinnear extended this to even more disturbing effect, dancing with his dead lover and using her as a ventiloquist’s dummy to speak to his brother. Playing this for laughs, yet not allowing the basic sickness and insanity of his actions to be overshadowed, Kinnear’s Vindice was complex and thoroughly compelling.

His continued transformation, from Piato to an exaggeratedly melancholic and thuggish version of himself, and then finally to rabble-rousing revolutionary in the final movement, excited throughout and gave the play a clear human heart. His vindictiveness wasn’t always sympathetic, particularly his bloodlust during the actual killings, but the focussed and good-humoured approach kept the audience on side. This worked particularly well in contrast to Jamie Parker’s suited Hippolito, a basically good but far less independent character than his brother. Hippolito drew less sympathy as he followed his brother unquestioningly, laughed manically during the murders and seemed to understand far less of what he was doing. This was brought out brilliantly at the end, as Antonio ordered the deaths of the two brothers. Hippolito struggled and cried out, while Vindice calmly knelt and accepted his death as if he’d known all along it would come to this. His understanding from the start of the journey he had embarked upon compared favourably to his easily-influenced brother.

The balance between comedy and tragedy in the rest of the play was well-handled, if biased more towards the comedy. Chief among the more amusing performances were John Heffernan’s Supervacuo and Tom Andrews’ Ambitioso, the Duchess’s twittish sons whose scheming was continually thwarted. Heffernan in particular excelled, exaggerating his character’s toffish arrogance and spending much of his time downstage playing directly out to the audience. Blacker comedy was found in the younger brother, a pair of brief appearances by Tommy Luther, whose frank admission to Lady Antonio’s rape was disarmingly amusing while also shocking in its brazenness.

Lussurioso, the Duke’s heir, was similarly unpleasant but in a very different way. At the start he was a lazy, slightly stupid and thoroughly lecherous playboy, his designs on Castiza comically lustful. As the play progressed, though, his character developed into one both more dangerous and, in many ways, more noble. As he progressed from seeking women to ordering murders he found himself growing up, and while indulgent to the end his ambition became keener. By the time of his crowning, he had assumed an almost regal dignity, albeit one he wasn’t able to enjoy for long.Ken Bones was strong as the evil Duke, particularly in his final scenes as he flirted with the skeleton and was then set upon by the two brothers, writhing in their arms as the poison took hold, and Billy Carter also stood out as Thurio, clad in black and moving slowly and secretively around the stage. His was the most unambiguously dark of the performances, an older and maturer kind of villain whose indulgences (with the Duchess) were carefully planned rather than spontaneous, and his acute observations gave him a sense of threat throughout. His quick death was something of a shame, as one felt early on that he would rise to greater prominence.

The play’s stunning dumbshows, such as the opening described above, were the theatrical equivalent of movie montages. The spinning stage, with its nooks and hidden corridors between sets, created a world in which this black comedy and bloody violence could be realised. The chorus of dancers could often be seen in the distance through the translucent screens using collars and other sexual toys as they revelled. The Duke’s murder, Vindice and Hippolito following him through the corridors, was a perfect example of this. The Duchess and Spurio (the Duke’s bastard son) were seen having rough sex in corners while the Duke, increasingly bloodied as the brothers took their knives to him again and again, stumbled through the party, watched by the ghostly onlookers in a surreal horror-fantasy that took on nightmarish aspects and ended in a pool of blood as the frenzied murderers tore his chest to pieces. The attention to detail was fantastic – Gloriana’s skeletal body was left lying in one room, and by the time the stage had completed a full rotation it had been replaced by a ‘real’ Gloriana, who smiled at Vindice in congratulation of his act before floating quietly away. These dumb shows occasionally bordered on the unnecessary in their insistence on tying up almost every loose end (for example, a silent scene at the end in which Antonio visited Gratiana and Castiza, they bursting into tears at his words), but were effective in fleshing out the small but complicated world in which the play took place.

The music must be mentioned also. As well as differentGear’s conjuration of a nightclub mood from the DJ booth, Adrian Sutton’s full-blooded score was instrumental in creating the hedonistic atmosphere. A violin player and male counter-tenor (his voice was unbelievable) even joined the revellers in early scenes, adding both visually and aurally to the action while the dancers surrounded them. Later, as the Duke was murdered, the violist appeared again, now following the staggering Duke and accompanying him in a fiendlike way. The instrumentalists merged seamlessly into the DJ’s rhythms, and it would be a real shame if the soundtrack isn’t made available for purchase.

There were messier moments. Some of the dramatic moments of rushing about, such as in Lussurio’s midnight attack on the Duke’s bed, were muddy and confused, and the final slaughter at the masque was disappointing. The masque itself, introduced by a beautiful solo dance and followed by a visually arresting display of acrobatics by masked men, was beautiful, but then the melee of slaughter between the various brothers was carried out disappointingly quickly before the audience even had time to register who was who. The production is still in preview though, and these things will hopefully be ironed out. Yet the final image of the stage littered in bodies, Antonio and his nameless lackeys standing over them while a projected skull dominated the scenery, was a powerful and sobering one. Ultimately, though, the lights went down on an empty throne, a quiet and barren reminder of the destruction that had occurred. While the audience may have been laughing throughout, the play still carried the weight of a true tragedy. Director Melly Still is a talent to watch.

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