June 12, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

The Revenger’s Tragedy @ Manchester Royal Exchange

There are advantages and disadvantages to seeing two productions of the same play in close proximity to each other. The main advantage, to my mind, is the opportunity to see multiple interpretations of the same text and thereby learn more about the actual text itself, to see through the reading of an individual director to the core of what they’re working on. The disadvantage – and I do consider it a disadvantage – is the inevitable comparison between the productions. I found this particularly at yesterday’s performance of the Royal Exchange’s Revengers’ Tragedy; with the National’s superior production still fresh in my mind, I was perhaps more disappointed than the production itself merited.

Jonathan Moore’s in-the-round production modernised the play in a fairly generic way, seemingly primarily in order to turn the Duchess’ sons into ASBO-inflicted hoodies. The modern setting did provide a couple of interesting readings, though, chiefly in the idea of Vindice’s mother as an Irish immigrant, giving her family an outsider status in the world of the play. Otherwise, it provided an excuse for loud music and comic reimaginings of scenes, such as Lussurioso’s attack on the Duke taking place in a shower rather than a bedroom (with all the nudity that implies).

The main problem with the modernising was that it felt rather underdone. It might have been the fault of the matinee, but the energy was sorely lacking in the first scenes, most embarrasingly in the early dance that Vindice paused to address his enemies. The music and dancing had the enthusiasm and cool factor of a family wedding, with everyone just shuffling back and forth a bit. Paradoxically, though, the reverse was true of Merryn Owen and Sam Fletcher as the Duchess’ elder two sons, who were commendably energetic throughout in their abusive gestures, teenage gyrating and energetic bouncing. While often funny, in the close quarters of the Exchange it sometimes felt far more than necessary to achieve the effect. Nevertheless, the pace provided by these two was very welcome.

Central to the production was Stephen Tompkinson’s Vindice, and he impressed throughout. A religious man, this Vindice spent a great deal of time on his knees, whether to receive his mother’s blessings, pray for vengeance or show his feigned humility. A very sober figure in his own guise, his disguise as Piato was particularly effective, donning a ruffed cloak, tiny sunglasses, cane and crazy haircut to look like a demonic schoolmaster. Speaking with a nasally (and somewhat camp) voice, he acted as a master of ceremonies as he manipulated the rest of the court, most spectacularly realised as he literally stage-managed the Duke’s ‘date’, swirling his cane around the floor to entice streams of dry ice, cuing garish lighting and music with nods to the technical box and standing centrally smiling monstrously. Tompkinson also provided much of the production’s humour. In one memorable moment, he and Damian O’Hare’s solid Hippolito carried on the dead body of the Duke to the strains of The Sun Has Got His Hat On, dancing diabolically with the corpse in an impressive piece of choreography (and of playing dead from Robert Demeger). Increasingly, too, the two brothers took control over the play’s stage management as their power increased, cuing more and more of the effects. In a lovely final moment, John Gillett’s Antonio clicked his fingers for the lights to black out, thereby demonstrating the power shift.

Music throughout was used to comic effect, such as having Julie Walters singing My Favourite Things as the Duchess’ youngest son had his neck snapped, and Castiza entering in sluttish costume singing Amy Winehouse’s Rehab as she pretended to leave for Lussurioso’s palace. However, these moments of music didn’t feel integrated enough into what was happening, which was particularly frustrating in those moments where music was used to create an atmosphere (such as a dance), but was then abruptly cut off for the dialogue to begin. The comedy also often didn’t feel embedded in the characters or plot, some moments feeling a little tacked-on for cheap laughs. One undeniably amusing moment saw a renaissance clown join the stage to begin his scene with Castiza, only for the stage manager to enter and remind him before the audience that he had been cut, at which he protested before sulking off stage. Amusing, but needlessly fussy.

One of the strongest performers was Jonathan Keeble as Lussurioso. Despite an unusual bouncing gait, this was a surprisingly old and mature Lussurioso, an entirely different breed to his stepbrothers. He reclined in an armchair decorated like a globe (another free-standing globe next to him contained his whisky), and was seen exclusively in smart suit or formal dressing gown. Far from a childish libertine, he was more an upper-class socialite with some unusual tastes. His homoerotic relationship with Sordido was hinted at through looks and made more explicit with a prolonged kiss upon his release from prison, and as a result his pursuit of Castiza seemed to be less important, a triviality if not in fact a cover for appearance’s sake. Yet, despite his good breeding and civil voice, there was an undeniable sadistic streak to him, that saw him arrive at his youngest stepbrother’s execution and watch it with a drink in his hand. Moments like this prevented him ever becoming sympathetic, but this was a complex and interesting performance. Of less interest was Stephen Hudson’s Spurio, the bastard, who was played whinily and with an irritating conscience at his incestuous relationship with the Duchess. While the text suggests a confident and somewhat manipulative figure, this Spurio was insecure and foolish, and Corinna Powlesland’s Duchess played easily on him.

There was plenty of good in this production, which felt undermined by what appeared to be a lack of committment. There were moments of comedy, moments of gore (most fun was the gradual falling out of the Duke’s teeth after being poisoned, they dropping noisily onto the floor) and moments of emotion, but everything in the play felt like a moment rather than part of an overall vision. When it was trying to be loud or fast it simply wasn’t loud or fast enough, when it tried to be in-yer-face it didn’t try hard enough and when it wanted laughs it had to deviate from established moods. While the second act was considerably better realised, the production never really worked out what it wanted to be. A fine enough production for those who can’t reach London, and lots to enjoy, but if you’ve got the option and you only want to see one Revenger’s Tragedy this year, I’d have to send you to the National.

Posted in Theatre review