Against all the trade union regulations laid down for ghosts in Jacobean revenge plays, the revenant race in Tourneur's The Atheist's Tragedy comes not to urge his son to vengeance, but to counsel him to Christian patience. At one point in Anthony Clark's flair-filled modern dress staging of this rarity at the Birmingham Rep, the ghost even sticks a bloody restraining arm through a gap in Patrick Connellan's blue-tiled heaven, quite unabashed that this is a gesture patented by God the Father.
The problem facing the spook's offspring, Charlemont, is thus the obverse of that which confronts Hamlet, whose tragedy influences a number of features of Tourneur's play. As the title suggests, though, the focus here is less on the stoical hero, who turns into prime Head Boy material in James Simmons's performance, than on the villainous, fratricidal and free-thinking uncle D'Amville, whom Gerard Murphy builds into a magnificent monster of toxic unction and insolently self- amused insincerity.
Believing that there is no power above nature, D'Amville starts off ruthlessly and single-mindedly pursuing the wealth that will enrich his miserable posterity. But when he suffers a suspicious sequence of setbacks and both his sons die on him, he veers into flowing-maned distraction, baffled by Charlemont's patient forebearance as he awaits execution and, at the last moment, swinging the axe at his own head rather than his nephew's. D'Amville had earlier expressed a desire to dissect Charlemont's corpse, so crazedly curious is he to locate the physiological cause as to why death holds no terror for the younger man. In an ironic, spectacularly gruesome touch, Clark has the dying D'Amville dissect himself, wrenching out a chunk of bleeding brain and displaying it to the audience. A graphic admission that it was his own grey matter that needed testing, the moment can't escape bordering on farce, giving us a villain who has, almost literally, half a mind to change his ways, yet an unimpaired ability to speak in blank verse.
Despite its edifying moral, The Atheist's Tragedy could never be confused with an improving tract. Underscored by a sardonic (on stage) piano accompaniment from Dane Preece, Clark's production creates, with just the right degree of depraved relish, a sense of a corrupt, hypocrisy-ridden society. The talented cast pile through the Fedeauesque farce with considerable chutzpah, helped by a vivid deploying of the vast stage's technical resources. A charnel house, replete with high-density cadavers, rears up from the earth. In court, judges are suspended, like bewigged brats, on tasselled cushion swings. Also, in a shop that's been updated to a tattoo parlour, there's some of the funniest and dirtiest decoding of Jacobean double entendre I've seen in a long while.
This is only the second revival of the play this century and Birmingham's courage in putting it on the main stage seems to be paying off. When I was there, a very healthy crowd for a Monday evening lapped it up. It makes you wonder why the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan hasn't got to The Atheist's Tragedy before now.
The Atheist's Tragedy continues at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (Box office: 021- 236 4455)
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