The plot includes rape, incest and countless murders, and yet The Revenger’s Tragedy is a surprisingly funny affair, found Caroline Bishop when she attended the first night at the National’s Olivier theatre.
From the outset it is clear that Melly Still’s production of Thomas Middleton’s play is going to be a bold and decisive one, with striking imagery that vividly conjures the hedonistic and debauched court of a lecherous old Duke. Within an imposing set, dominated by pillars in devilish red, the inhabitants of the court live in a perpetual state of seedy self-indulgence and immorality, leading the Duchess’s younger son to believe he can commit rape without consequences.
It is this pit of corruption that our hero – or anti-hero – Vindice intends to bring down. Having lost both his father and his fiancée Gloriana at the hand of the Duke, Vindice vows to avenge their deaths. With the help of his brother Hippolito, who works in the Duke’s court, Vindice infiltrates the court in disguise and plots the downfall of the Duke and his dishonest, decadent world.
With the characters in modern dress and thumping dance music accompanying the court’s frequent revelling, Still’s production merges Middleton’s 17th century world with our own, making binge drinking and promiscuity seem like age-old traditions rather than modern-day governmental concerns.
If Vindice lived today, perhaps he would be a moral crusader in the shape of Ann Widdecombe or Mary Whitehouse, as he goes about his mission to put an end to corruption. Rory Kinnear (who looks like neither) plays the revenger as a family-orientated, usually non-violent man whose grief and anger has put him on a bloody path. Despite his strict – though increasingly warped – moral line, he has a light-hearted side that comes out in his amusing asides to the audience as, in disguise, he becomes confidante of the Duke’s lascivious elder son and heir, Lussurioso.
The latter, played by Elliot Cowan, is self-serving and devoid of morals, as are most people in the court – the Duchess, who commits adultery with her husband’s son, Lussurioso’s half-brothers who plot to claim the throne for themselves, and the leering Duke himself, who has a penchant for poisoning those women who have the audacity to turn down his sexual advances.
A bloody conclusion of epic proportions does indeed put an end to most of this corruption, but Vindice won’t be around to appreciate the new moral order. Which is a shame, because though he commits several violent murders during the course of his revenge, something about Kinnear’s sympathetic face makes Vindice seem a thoroughly nice chap.