Thomas Middleton’s bloody Jacobean classic The Revenger's Tragedy was revived this week at the National Theatre, where it opened on 4 June 2008 (previews from 27 May) in rep in the NT Olivier as part of the Travelex £10 Season. It stars Rory Kinnear, who won Laurence Olivier and Ian Charleson Awards for his performance in last year’s The Man of Mode at the NT Olivier (See News, 25 April 2008).
The titular revenger is Vindice (Kinnear), who sets out to avenge the death of his betrothed after she’s poisoned by the lecherous and aging Duke of an Italian court. Adopting a variety of disguises to achieve his ends, Vindice uncovers deep-set corruption in the court, spreading even amongst members of his own family.
Despite ongoing debate over the authorship of the play (until recently Cyril Tourneur was credited), most scholars now attribute it to Thomas Middleton. It fell out of favour after the 1660 restoration of the theatres, but found popularity again in the 20th century, helped largely by Trevor Nunn’s 1965 Royal Shakespeare Company production, which starred Ian Richardson.
At the NT, it’s directed by Melly Still, whose previous production in the Olivier, Coram Boy, ran for two consecutive Christmas seasons (2005 and 2006) and transferred to Broadway. As well as Kinnear, the cast also features Elliot Cowan, Adjoa Andoh, Barbara Flynn, Peter Hinton, Jamie Parker, John Heffernan and Ken Bones as the murderous Duke.
First night critics commended Still’s combined modern and traditional production for evoking a “sumptuous swirl of punkish decadence” with the “raucous” DJ music adding to an atmosphere of “decadent loucheness”. Most also felt that leading man Rory Kinnear successfully captured Vindice’s “volatile mood swings and the final sense of futility of the serial killer”, although some believe the actor is a “better comedian than tragedian”. Among the supporting cast, the “sneering” Elliot Cowan and “murderously sinister” Ken Bones were a hit, as was Billy Carter who gave a “chilling variation on Iago” in the role of Spurio.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “As Rory Kinnear has already been announced as a future Hamlet at the National, his Vindice can be more easily seen as a warm-up for that role, and although he manages the fireworks and bitter humour well enough, the dark, warped centre of the moralistic revenger escapes him ... (His) environment is summoned by Still and her co-designer Ti Green in a sumptuous swirl of punkish decadence, lusty conjunctions and cavortings enacted in corridors and chambers decorated in fleshy Renaissance frescoes. The motif of dumb show and masquerade is splendidly maintained throughout, providing lavish spectacle … The verse has the bare, functional qualities we expect in Middleton and the cast despatch it with as much relish as they do each other. RSC veteran Ken Bones, in a National debut, is a murderously sinister Duke and I also liked Billy Carter as his bastard son Spurio (‘Old dad dead?’) and Jamie Parker as Hippolito. There is some extraordinary live music by Adrian Sutton and club DJs differentGear, sliding from madrigals to monster mash.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Think Sarah Kane and early Edward Bond, with Mark Ravenhill thrown in, and you’re closer to defining the imaginative punch of Melly Still’s modern-dress revival … The evening begins as it means to go on, with raucous rock accompanying the Olivier revolve as it reveals that vicious rape and scuttling figures who seem variously to come from Savile Row, revue-bar Soho and the insect house … The characters’ names – Ambitioso, Supervacuo, Sordido – tell the actors that they should look for inspiration more to the 16th-century’s bold, blunt morality plays than to the sophistication of Hamlet. And that’s a challenge accepted by everyone, from a louche, sneering Elliot Cowan to Billy Carter as a chilling variation on Iago to Kinnear, who has the charisma and burly power to radiate what Middleton wanted: a global scorn that starts principled, becomes destructive, ends self-destructive.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “The NT and the Manchester Royal Exchange have opened productions of this infrequently performed play in the same week … Jonathan Moore in Manchester and Melly Still at the NT have set their productions in modern dress, though the designs at the National are far more spectacular, with projections of late Renaissance paintings and revolving sets mixing with present-day street clothes and party scenes of orgiastic excess … In a play that owes a lot to Hamlet, Rory Kinnear as Vindice stakes his claim to play Shakespeare's sweet prince. He superbly captures the character's volatile mood swings and the final sense of futility of the serial killer, who in murdering others, finally extinguishes his own divine fire. The production is blessed with clarity, a hurtling pace, and an atmosphere of decadent loucheness, while the mixture of baroque and modern dance music works a treat. Best of all, Still's staging is as blackly comic as it is gory.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “This fusion of ancient and modern strikes all the right notes: masque, athletic dancers leap both to underground club sounds by DifferentGear and to Adrian Sutton’s traditional, religious music. A superlative, revolve-stage design by Ti Green and Still reeks of rancid grandeur, with translucent, voluptuous Renaissance paintings dominating each grand, pillared room, while shady, sexy characters dally and wander in narrow corridors … Rory Kinnear expertly conveys the hero’s comic relish for plotting, disguise and deception, but little of Vindice’s lyrical anguish or poetic fanaticism … Sex drives the action and it drives it as wild and strange as anything in mainline Jacobean drama … The Duke’s sighting of his adulterous Duchess with his bastard son completes the torment. Still brilliantly stages this amazing scene as a dance of death in the semi-dark, the murderous violence prolonged. It’s an action matched by the final masque when Vindice overreaches himself and ends up in the pile of dead — morality and justice restored to a world we have seen gone thrillingly to the bad, worse and back again.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “Revenge, that most mind-warping of emotions, receives an almost psychedelic treatment in the National Theatre’s new production of an unpleasant Jacobean classic … Melly Still’s direction is undeniably striking. That isn’t to say I liked it – but since when has anyone actually liked this chilling story, which is usually credited to Thomas Middleton? You’re meant to fear it … Kinnear, a better comedian than tragedian, is at his best when Vindice assumes disguises and indulges in mockery of his enemies. This Vindice becomes so thrilled by his deadly games that he runs on the spot with glee and sinks to his knees in pleasure at the downfall of his foes … Elliot Cowan does a rather odd turn as a louche son of the Duke, but he is not the strangest of the ducal offspring. Ambitioso and Supervacuo … are done as near-Wodehousian twerps by Tom Andrews and John Heffernan … This is not a show suitable for younger or staider minds. But the entire thing is without doubt an insistent coup de theatre.”
- by Theo Bosanquet
** Don't miss our Whatsonstage.com Outing to THE REVENGER'S TRAGEDY on 15 July 2008 – including a FREE drink & post-show cast reception – sll for £15 - click here to buy now! **