The Revenger's Tragedy, NT Olivier, London
Hysteria, St Bart's Hospital, London
Love: the Musical, Lyric Hammersmith, London
Rosmersholm, Almeida, London
Tit-for-tat knife crime, Jacobean style: Decadence leads to downfall at the National; elsewhere it's all repression and geriatric love
Sunday 08 June 2008
Rory Kinnear's Vindice is the avenger. Clutching a skull like some half-crazed cousin of Hamlet's, he mutters feverishly at the start of Thomas Middleton's Jacobean bloodbath, The Revenger's Tragedy. He vows that he'll purge the world of the lech-erous, luxuriating Duke who has poisoned his beloved virgin-bride.
In this modern-dress production, Kinnear has a touch of the fundamentalist terrorist – in this case, a sin-obsessed Christian one. He starts off with a long beard and ascetic uncut locks. These are shaved off only when he disguises himself as a wide boy to infiltrate the Duke's coterie of sleazy fashionistas. In due course, the royals hire their would-be scourge as a procurer and hit man. Middleton certainly had a sardonic eye for twisted and compromised morals.
But director-designer Melly Still does not overemphasise the notion of the zealous fundamentalist. Nonetheless, Kinnear does end up surrounded by corpses in a palace that pointedly resembles a decadent nightclub. Pounding hiphop beats accompany the revels where brutal crimes go unheard – as Vindice observes – "thanks to loud music". The tit-for-tat stabbings have grim reverberations too as, instead of swords, knives are pulled from designer jeans.
This production certainly has its weaknesses. Oddly, considering Still's record as a physical-theatre director, the choreography is lame. Supposedly embodying bestial lust, one masked reveller prances around tossing a mane of matted dreadlocks, like something dragged in from Cats. The Goth computer graphics are, likewise, risibly naff, featuring a ghoulish visage sticking out a giant maggoty tongue. Has the NT signed some pact to be remorselessly multimedia, regardless of quality?
That said, it's exhilarating to see this famed but rarely aired drama. The verse-speaking is splendidly lucid in meaning and – even if Middleton was immature, and his storyline scrappy – his poetry is a vibrant mix of the ornate and the blunt. His so-called tragedy boldly veers into morbid farce, sparking explosive laughter. In one unforgettably macabre scene – a Psycho for the 17th century – Kinnear turns puppeteer, dressing up his beloved's skull in a femme-fatale wig and frock. This actor has great deadpan timing and, although he might have sustained more of his initial manic intensity, he is clearly relishing this mercurial leading role.
From what I could tell the all-female inmates in the 19th-century Rio de Janeiro asylum in Hysteria have been incarcerated for not managing to become demure wives. This production sounds, on paper, like an intriguing site-specific experiment and Brazil's equivalent of Marat/ Sade. The visiting troupe, Grupo XIX de Teatro, are performing in an oak-panelled great hall hidden away in St Bart's Hospital, and the audience are divided by gender. The women are seated in the playing area, where they are inspected for lice, asked personal questions and befriended by the patients who scamper around in wispy petticoats and old lace. In practice, this show is almost complete gobbledegook. I deciphered, maybe, one word in five due to hopeless acoustics and heavily accented, fantastically wobbly English. I did work out that the frequent talk of Arthur Weemin alluded not to a mystery gentleman but to additional members of the fair sex, and I distinctly caught one worrying cry about being "oppressed by the uterus". This was between bouts of praying, folk dancing and screaming fits (theirs, not mine).
The men, by the way, are completely sidelined. Yet miraculously, amid this collective losing of the plot, the cast manage to be ineffably charming. They have an innocence that makes their funny little probing chats with the ladies of 21st-century London strangely touching.
Out of the asylum and into the old people's home. The core idea behind Love: the Musical has surely been nabbed from the American OAPs' choir, Young @ Heart. Co-devised and directed by Gisli Orn Gardarsson – in collaboration with David Farr – Love features a community chorus of local pensioners singing everything from "When I'm Sixty-Four" to "Que sera sera". But they're also combined with a handful of professional actors and a storyline. Widowed and dumped by her son, Anna Calder-Marshall's Margaret is an unwilling care-home resident who, however, finds a new sweetheart in Julian Curry's eccentric gentlemanly Neville.
One can only take one's hat off to the whole cast for being so game – especially Curry who wanders through one scene naked as a newborn babe, clasping a small bunch of flowers. Both he and Calder-Marshall have innate dignity and, arguably, this is the septuagenarian generation's answer to My Beautiful Laundrette – out of the closet and celebrating their capacity for romance.
However, Gardarsson (best known as a physical-theatre performer) leaves everyone struggling with wooden dialogue and risibly ill-fitting songs. What is really exposed here is his embarrassing lack of fine-tuning as a director-devisor. His sentimentality makes On Golden Pond look hardcore. I staggered around in the interval feeling as if he'd added 10 years to my life though, again remarkably, Curry and Calder-Marshal rise above this for a moment of Romeo and Juliet-like poignancy, right at the end.
Finally, Ibsen's little-known tragedy Rosmersholm proves gripping, with chilling twists, in Anthony Page's scrupulously naturalistic period production. Helen McCrory plays the unmarried freethinker, Rebecca, who finds herself in deep water when the conservative local politician, Kroll, embarks on a smear campaign. He claims she's far more than just the housekeeper to Paul Hilton's radicalised socialist Rosmer. Page's anti-melodramatic approach keeps the dialogue quietly enthralling as it shifts between political debate and exposed passion. McCrory's springy self-assurance unravels, distressingly, before your eyes. Meanwhile, Malcolm Sinclair's Kroll has a rabid Christian fervour that makes him sound like another scary fundamentalist.
'The Revenger's Tragedy' (020 7452 3000) to 7 August; 'Hysteria' (0845 120 7550) to 14 June; 'Love' (0871 221 1722) to 21 June; 'Rosmersholm' (020 7359 4404) to 5 July
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