REVIEW: The Revenger’s Tragedy, National Theatre, South Bank

PUBLISHED: 11:42 19 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:09 07 September 2010

Four star rating The energy in this production of The Revenger s Tragedy is incredible. The play starts in a blast of wild music and dance. Masked figures leap across the stage, pirouetting and posing in debauched semi-nudity as the revolving stage spins

Four star rating

The energy in this production of The Revenger's Tragedy is incredible. The play starts in a blast of wild music and dance. Masked figures leap across the stage, pirouetting and posing in debauched semi-nudity as the revolving stage spins through a series of sets, from a modest, book-laden study, to the opulence of tapestry-strewn state rooms. A counter-tenor sings, beautifully, through the orgiastic mayhem - which is culminating, brutally, in a group rape.

In terms of spectacle, this production can't be faulted. The sets are stunning, the live music contributes to the sense of excitement and in a three-hour (give or take) play, the pace never falters, helped along by beautifully choreographed dancing.

Middleton has been newly reinstated by scholars as the most likely author of this play. (Previous generations credited his contemporary, Torneur). His plot centres around the vengeful Vindice, whose fiancée has been murdered by the Duke, head of the state, after she refused his amorous advances. Vindice wants a skull for a skull, and sets off to court in disguise, where his brother, the resourceful Hippolito, has secured him a position with the Duke's heir, lusty Lussorioso.

This is where the plot starts to thicken and various sub-plots swarm about the action. One involves the Duchess, who has grown to hate her husband the Duke, and plans to cuckold him. Another involves the machinations of the Duchess's sons to do away with Lussorioso and position themselves in line to the throne. Yet another centres on Lussorioso's infatuation with Castiza, the virtuous sister of Vindice and Hippolito.

A great strength of this production is how clearly this complicated play is conveyed. There's absolute clarity as to what is going on, and why. Part of the credit for that goes to Rory Kinnear, an excellent Vindice. He straddles his identities - the volatile avenger and the counterfeiting man of the court - with ease. Other performances to single out are Jamie Parker, as the loyal Hippolito, and Elliot Cowan, whose performance as the spoiled, lecherous heir grew in power as the play progressed.

But, for all its strengths, The Revenger's Tragedy is lumbered with a fundamental problem. If a 400-year-old play is to be staged today, something about it - either the beauty of the language, or the relevance of its message - must still resonate. Director Melly Still tries to imply that the play has an immediacy in the 21st century by dressing the cast in modern costume (including glitzy hotpants and sparkly bandeau tops), but the play is too mired in Jacobean sexual mores - the emphasis on chastity and honour - to transfer successfully to our own age. As a result, this piece becomes purely about spectacle, rather than allowing the audience to engage emotionally with the characters.

Recognising that shortcoming, Still concentrates on making the most of what she's got, ekeing out every ounce of comedy (even Kinnear's speech about his dead fiancée is played for laughs) and racheting up the gore. The result is exhilarating, but ultimately empty, theatre.

Until September.

Katie Masters

The Revenger's Tragedy is the third Travelex £10 Tickets Production of 2008.


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