Thursday 5 June 2008

The Revenger's Tragedy - National Theatre

Written for

The Revenger's Tragedy is a lot of fun. It's fun for everyone: academics get to argue about whether it's by Thomas Middleton or, as previously thought, Cyril Tourner; socially minded critics get to envisage it as a comment on Jacobean proto-socialist uprisings; and everyone else gets a ripping yarn about a guy merrily avenging his way through a whole tier of Italian nobility with a series of cunning strategies, disguises and just honest to goodness violence. There's also plenty of enjoyable cynicism and dry wit, alongside some somewhat less enjoyable misogyny.

The fearsomely difficult-to-condense plot revolves around Vindice (Rory Kinnear) who has vowed to wreak bloody vengeance on the Duke who nine years earlier poisoned Vindice's fiancée Gloriana. The Duke's youngest step-son is imprisoned for rape. The Duke's only legitimate son Lussurioso, meanwhile, is hanging out in houses of ill repute and trying to seduce Vindice's sister, while his illegitimate son has designs on his dukedom. Thanks to an introduction from his brother Hippolito, Vindice enters the Duke's court disguised as a pimp, and sets up a chain of events which will result in the death of pretty much everyone mentioned above along with a few hapless attendant lords.

Taking its cue from Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy seems much-influenced by Shakespeare's tragedy of revenge, but where Hamlet is predominantly a play of procrastination, The Revenger's Tragedy is an all-out no-questions-asked frontal onslaught. The only moments of deferral stem from good sense and timing. There is no question of Vindice troubling himself over questioning his course of action. He is, however, something of a stern moralist, spending part of a diverting sub-plot persuading his mother, while disguised, to effectively pimp out his sister, her daughter, to the lascivious Lussurioso as a test of her moral character.

Melly Still's production is something of a mixed bag. The first ten minutes are pretty diabolical. The play opens with the large three way revolve set slowly turning as assorted party-goers, dancers and hookers cavort their way around it throwing shapes and tableaux. It is remarkably similar to the opening of Nick Hytner's own Man of Mode (also starring Rory Kinnear) in the Olivier last year. In fact, it's rather as if someone were trying to reproduce precisely the effect of that production without having the faintest idea why. The costumes too aim for the achingly modern look of Man of Mode, but appear to have got stuck somewhere between Hoxton and 1987. The choreography is similarly markedly less successful, with inept moves being liberally splashed about – including a misconceived interpretative sequence later in the play, seemingly transposed from Shared Experience's equally galling Mrs Rochester in a red dress from Jane Eyre.

Kinnear's first appearance is similarly concerning, dressed in a long wig and unconvincing beard and speaking the text pretty ponderously, one starts to wonder if one is going to make it as far as the interval. However, it all soon livens up, and once divested of the ludicrous wig and beard for his disguise, the play snaps into life and the caustic misanthropy of the plot takes hold. From here on in, aside from the occasional dull patch, the play whizzes along at quite a pace. Kinnear's performance is incredibly precise. His ability to make text come alive, imbued with nuance, wit and purpose is remarkable. The supporting cast, especially Elliot Cowan as Lussurioso, have a good stab at keeping up, but this is definitely Kinnear's play. His great strength is how little showboating his performance involves, relying on clarity and understatement rather than bombast and histrionics.

While not perfect – particularly where matters of design are concerned – this is a hugely enjoyable way of spending an evening. And if it's not necessarily a definitive production of the play, then it boasts a central performance that is worth the £10 Travelex-subsidised price of entry alone.

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