Thomas Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy was first performed in 1606. Talk about family drama! The Duchess has three sons by a previous marriage, and the Duke has one, not counting the bastard (who takes up with his stepmother). It drips with intrigue and duplicity. It's set, naturally, in Italy.
London's National Theatre produced it this month with extraordinary success. The designs (by Ti Green and Melly Still) are all and marvelous, with a stark throne room for the Duke and glorious Renaissance murals for the court. The revolving stage has crannies of mystery reflecting the intricacies of the script. The costumes are modern and unobtrusive, making their point without attracting attention.
Our hero, Vindice, is played by Rory Kinnear, looking terrific under his red T-shirt and white sport jacket. When we meet him, he's a Raskolnikov in his bare room, books scattered on the floor, his hair ragged. He morphs into a macho with a buzz cut, and finally dons a great fright wig in his final disguise. Kinnear is terrific, with a clear emotional life expressed through a fluid physicality. He flails his arms or stands in an introverted lump, as the need arises.
There's a lot of physical action on this stage. We open with tumblers and dancers - they show up again from time to time - and occasionally there are nameless characters doing the most obscene things as the stage revolves. In the final masque, Still holds back, giving us the masked dancers (they're really the young Dukelets) on a spare set, because she can't top the spectacle she's already given us. Wise choice - but executed without insight, and the macabre dance fails.
This terrific production has crisp asides, an elegant counter tenor, and, when the occasion demands, a disco beat. Even the face, projected on the walls of the set, that morphs into a demon in the way of computer graphics, is integrated into the design.
The script revels in the black Jacobean humor: Vindice confesses a series of deceits to the Duke before killing him and adds "Tell nobody" before he stabs him. And Still's concern with macabre detail matches the playwright's - there's dummy that's passed off as a woman (Vindice panders for the duke), and in a post-murder frenzy it comes to life.
The actresses of this cast don't come off well - Vindice's mother and sister are oddly colorless. And Still hasn't expressed the cynical depth of the script, its unspeakable emotions. Determined not to dwell on a moment, he never savors the luscious evil. The trick is, though, that she's managed to drive this dinosaur (mixed metaphor there) by us so deftly. Tell everybody that great drama is timeless and that a form intensely linked to the 17th century can speak to us as well.
- Steve Capra