Sex, murder, corruption and incest... Thomas Middleton knew exactly what Jacobean audiences liked, and he crammed it all into The Revenger's Tragedy.
The set-up goes something like this: the beautiful Gloriana has been poisoned for refusing the advances of the lecherous Duke. Her fiancé, Vindice (who still keeps her skull handy in a box), vows revenge. He is not the only one; most of the cast seem to be plotting revenge against the Duke or a member of his hideous family, and it's a wonder any of them survive until the interval, let alone the end of the play.
Melly Still's production is certainly extravagant. Impressive use is made of the revolving stage, which has three sets with corridors between them, enabling actors to run from one scene and arrive in another just as it glides into view. Dancing adds spectacle without distracting from the action, and the music is a glorious fusion of Elizabethan and modern styles.
The play's elements of comedy come across well. The Duchess's evil sons (played with relish by Tom Andrews and John Hefferman) struggle to keep straight faces when they hear of an enemy's death, but their bewilderment on seeing said foe stroll on and greet them is priceless.
Yet the play contains many problems for a modern audience. There is no chance of anyone nowadays taking the nonsense with the poisoned skull seriously, so the director has chosen to play it for laughs. The result is ever so slightly embarrassing.
The end of the play, too, seems unsatisfactory. As with much Jacobean tragedy, most of those remaining abruptly kill one another within half a minute. Not so much a climax as a cop-out.
A bigger criticism is that given that it's supposed to be a tragedy, the production contains no sense of grief, or indeed any emotion that cannot be conveyed by having the actor shout the lines rather than speak them.
After an agonised opening soliloquy, Rory Kinnear, as Vindice, almost becomes an automaton, plotting out destruction as he might plot out moves in a game of chess. Even when facing his own death, his devil-may-care attitude is totally unbelievable. Likewise, when Vindice's brother comes face to face with Gloriana's remains, it is a moment crying out for a sense of horror, of pathos. But for all the concern he shows, he might be on a picnic.
For all the spectacle, then, The Revenger's Tragedy contains very little substance. And for all the bloodshed, the production is, well, bloodless.
To 7 Aug (020-7452 3000)
Paul Mills, journalist, Uxbridge
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