Written in 1606 by Thomas Middleton, 'The Revenger's Tragedy' is a tale of a state overdosing on excess and in-fighting. The opening scene is a kind of carnival during which a rape occurs, and other sundry sexual activities take place 'behind the scenes' of the ingenious set designed by Ti Green and director, Melly Still.
A friend saw the play a couple of days before me and disliked the opening, declaring it unnecessarily long. However, I thought it provided an unusual start as well as the necessary background. I suppose, though, it will stimulate some controversy.
If my memory serves me correctly, the last play I saw directed by Melly Still was the excellent 'Coram Boy' also at the National. In comparison with 'Coram Boy' this play is on a smaller scale at least in terms of the plot, but it nonetheless gives plenty of room for imaginative direction with a macabre mix of comedy and tragedy.
This is a story of revenge, and the revenge, once exacted, turns out to be quite 'sweet', at least until a new regime gets into power and then things turn sour again at least for the main protagonist. We first meet Vindice as he's still mourning the death of his betrothed some nine years after she was poisoned by the Duke for declining his amorous advances, and more recently the death of his father at the same hands. Vindice seeks vengeance and his brother, Hippolito, offers an opportunity to get Vindice into the heart of the Duke's court disguised as Piato. Once installed in the centre of intrigue and power, Piato's first task is secure a virgin for the Duke's son, Lussurioso. It turns out that the girl in question is none other than Vindice's sister, and means he has to go to his own house to charm her and his mother with the lure of cash and expensive baubles. It's not long, however, before Vindice gets the opportunity he's been looking for to despatch the Duke, and there's a considerable amount of blood spilt in the protracted process.
Rory Kinnear takes the lead playing Vindice as well as his disguised alter-ego, Piato. It's a formidable performance, which tantalises us with the line "I think man's happiest when he forgets himself”. And that is what Vindice seems to do. At the start of the play he looks almost like Robinson Crusoe, ringing his hands in woe and complete with bare feet and hair that you could easily stuff a three piece suite with. By the time the play reaches its conclusion, Kinnear has almost become the kind of person against whom he originally sought vengeance, and it's hard to see a glimmer of the person he started off as.
There's good support from Ken Bones as the lecherous, shiny suit-wearing Duke, Jamie Parker as Vindice's enthusiastic brother, Hippolito, who ably and enthusiastically aids Vindice in his search for revenge, and Elliot Cowan as the lithe, sex-obsessed Duke's son who lusts after Vindice's sister.
Modern dress is the order of the day here, and it doesn't seem out of place, given that the set design is a mixture of old and new – rather like what we see everyday all around us.
The play starts very suddenly - which seems to be something of a fashion since I've encountered this in several shows recently. And at the end of this play there's a heap of bodies on stage which outdoes anything you might see in Shakespeare. In fact Middleton's play is the work of a brash but hugely talented young upstart, in a sense, challenging the acknowledged master of the day.
If Middleton's idea was to shock, then it works, and Melly Still's production follows suit with some fairly explicit scenes – rape, masturbation and images of people having sex projected on to enormous paintings, for example. But it never seemed exploitative. On the contrary, Still's vision – encompassing an inspired set, several different styles of music and considerable humour - seemed well thought-out and immensely inventive.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Extraordinary Jacobean masterpiece." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "excellent modern-dress version...a production full of intriguing insights." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, " At its best, Still's production captures the play's mix of savagery and satire...I feel Still's restlessly kaleidoscopic version would be even better if it placed more trust in Middleton's mordant language." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Still's staging is as blackly comic as it is gory."BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "There’s a sardonic and even sadistic glee in his [Middleton] poetry and, as Still proves, a lot of dark, dangerous laughter to be found in the play."
Production photo by Johan Persson