Middleton's depraved and sticky mess of a play has here been well transplanted to the creaking beauty of a Hoxton Music Hall. Suba Das' vision of demented Victoriana, with sword-cane, white tie and masquerade trappings would have made the angry child of Jacobean playwrights smile more than anything except, perhaps, stabbing an orphan.
Tom Mothersdale's Vindice lives up to his name. The division between his hyper-stagey court persona and the darker, more withdrawn reality provides excellent watching, particularly when thrown into focus by Middleton's relentless asides. His lascivious (verbal) intercourse with Nana Amoo-Gottfried's Lussurioso is slick and sensical, which, of course, makes it all the sweeter when he tears out his eye in the closing scene.
Indeed, all the play's litany of violence is approached by all concerned with a particular relish suited to the time of year. The audience is afforded the happy opportunity to get up close and personal with a severed tongue and pulsing eyeball, and the violence enabling these gruesome displays aptly combines elegance and physicality. At this point it is also worth noting that sword-canes are cool regardless of circumstance.
Despite having the most authentic name in the cast, Vincenzo Nicoli's Duke lacks the true luster's lustre, often seeming platitudinous despite the inventiveness of the script. Some unfortunate doubling also sees him carrying out his own funeral service having died only a scene before; though Nicoli executes his priestly duties well, the role comes quick enough on his ducal heels to make the transition confusing. His Duchess (Bridgitta Roy) provides relatively little to scream about.
The play is very sensibly cut to around two hours and, aside from an instance where Lussurioso is condemned to prison only to walk inexplicably free a few scenes later, nary a plot hole is to be found. The courtly cast is pared down to a minimum, and the play's tragic gaze resultantly comes to rest intently on the two central families, which is no bad thing.
A moment of unexpected pathos comes towards the close when the Vindice's mother, Gratiana Sarah Ball, is forgiven her sins by her thus-far uncompromising progeny. As well as going some way to rehabilitate the play's sketchy attitude towards women ("the hooks to catch at man"), it gives second-string revenger Hippolito a chance to snatch some limelight. Delivered with an Etonian grace by Jack Hardwick, the well-captured wavering of a man resolved to kill his mother but called off at the last second reveals fleetingly a glimmer often subsumed by Mothersdale's histrionics.
While to an extent The Revenger's Tragedy is a cartoonish play, certain elements of Das' staging are heavy-handed - portentous chimes to add emphasis to speech, twinkly noises to accompany putting on fancy costumes - and ground against the more cerebral elements of the play. An interesting conceit of the staging whereby it's implied that Vindice is stage-managing the rest of the characters, mere pawns in his vengeance, is lost sight of by the interval, and thus becomes an opportunity missed.
But these ill-fated flourishes ultimately do little to detract. At once a faithful and inventive version of an underappreciated Renaissance masterpiece, The Revenger's Tragedy delivers wholeheartedly on its promise that "when the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good."