Review: The Revenger’s Tragedy, National Theatre

The Revenger’s Tragedy is a Jacobean revenge play of dubious authorship but these day, attributed to Thomas Middleton. It is set in a decadent Italian court full of moral decay but in Melly Still’s new production here at the Olivier auditorium in the National Theatre, it has taken on a whole new lease of life.

The story is full of backstabbing intrigue and intricate plotting which required a lot of attention. Vindice is our hero of sorts, but he is determined to be revenged on the Duke, as whilst he’s seemingly a fine upstanding type, actually raped and pillaged the fiancée of Vindice a few years back. His home life is a little eventful too, his Duchess is a narcissistic, sexually voracious, hedonist who is lusting after her husband’s bastard son; and their other sons are a motley crew of bad’uns. One of them, the handsome Lussurioso, has decided to buy a lovely young woman from her mother, but she turns out to be the sister of Vindice. Thus, the scene is set for a strange mix of tragedy and comedy as we hurtle to the oh so very bloody climax.

I struggled a lot with this production. Being unfamiliar with the play, I hadn’t a clue what was going on for so much of the running time but more crucially I had no sense of what overall effect was trying to be achieved. There’s elements of satire in there, but also moralising about lust and power so elements of my confusion stem from the play it seems, but so much of it comes from the production itself. The opening scene is a strange beast and symptomatic of my issues with this play: on the one hand it is a stunning five minute introduction into this world of hedonism and corrupt morality, packed full of pounding music, kinky sex, dancing, acrobatics, all manner of things in a bravura display. But it is also completely overwhelming, distracting from the verse once it starts and it is dramatically unfocused full as it is of anachronisms, leaving me quite confused as to just when it was actually set.

Rory Kinnear holds this production together with a mostly stunning performance of huge flexibility. As Vindice works through his plans of revenge, he assumes other characters and disguises so Kinnear really gets to flex his acting muscles and play a huge range highly effectively. I really liked Elliot Cowan’s frankly gorgeous Lussurioso and Ken Bones’ Duke and on the female side, Katherine Manners as the virginal sister was good whilst Adjoa Andoh as the Duchess and Barbara Flynn as Vindice’s mother were camp fun.

The vast soundscape created by a combination of live music and DJs add to the overwhelmingly huge impact created by Melly Still’s production and the skull-laden design, but ultimately it all proved a bit too much for me. This Revenger’s Tragedy is unusual and daring but in reaching so far, I’m not sure how successful it has truly been.

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