Trevor Nunn made his name with The Revenger's Tragedy at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1966. Twenty years later, another RSC revival with Antony Sher playing the title role of Vindice confirmed the glittering grand guignol of the Jacobean story, full of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts. On the both occasions, the author was Cyril Tourneur.
Today, however, academic opinion has settled the authorship on Thomas Middleton, although the programme notes for Melly Still’s flamboyant production in the Travelex £10 ticket scheme carry no explanation. Instead, there is a rather strained comparison of Middleton with John Osborne, as if there was a direct link between Vindice and Jimmy Porter. Well, yes and no.
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 first appearance in hermit’s garb of cloak and long hair is incomprehensible.
Vindice has suffered in silence for nine years since his beloved Gloriana was poisoned by the Duke for rebuffing his advances. Now, the death of his father and the ascendancy of his own brother, Hippolito, at the court, prompts his intervention. He whips off his wig and emerges in a silver glitter waistcoat, jeans and winkle pickers.
His new decadent 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.
This is a society going to hell in a handcart, so there’s nothing for us to latch on to there, then. Vindice is hired to pimp his own sister Castiza (Katherine Manners) for the Duke’s son Lussurioso (Elliot Cowan) but finds his mother Gratiana (Barbara Flynn) more compliant. This development spins off into a counter-plot involving the Duchess (Adjoa Andoh) and her other sons ganging up on the preening Lussurioso. Finally, Vindice is even hired to kill himself.
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.