The Revenger's Tragedy

Posted on: 02 July 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

A revival of Thomas Middleton's bloody tale of lust, avarice and revenge.

A morally corrupt universe where the desire for justice is contaminated by the obsession for revenge is vividly depicted by Thomas Middleton in his ferociously dark play The Revenger's Tragedy. It is revived in a startling and at times shocking new production at the National Theatre's Olivier auditorium.

As he holds the skull of his beloved, who rejected the licentious old Duke's advances and so was poisoned, Vindice plots the Duke's grotesque murder. Operating in disguises he provokes discord among his enemies so that they plot against each other. In a court where adultery, rape and incest are the norm, an orgy of ritualistic, even playful, bloodletting follows.

Director Melly Still convincingly transplants Middleton's intense Jacobean tragic burlesque to a world of modern urban decadence and moral bankruptcy, of trendy clubs, casual sex and furious blood-soaked revenge, played out on a revolving stage, linked by dark corridors.

It is Middleton's analysis of the intersection of sex and politics that renders the play so astonishingly modern. The sheer force of his poetry, his demonstration of the depth of human failings and the destructive power of lust for both sex and retribution is strongly conveyed.

Furthermore the production, which moves at breakneck speed, has some truly extraordinary touches. One such moment is at the beginning when our anti-hero opens what appears to be a shoe-box and takes out the skull of his murdered lover, which he later uses in a savagely funny scene to trick the killer into kissing poisoned teeth.

Still's careful consideration of the text and the cast's ability to find their way around the language and somehow give it a contemporary edge ensures that the complexities of the plot are made crystal clear.

He elicits an affecting central performance from Rory Kinnear as Vindice, the grieving lover and play's moral spokesman, willing to go to any lengths to overthrow the corrupt Italian court, even if it means losing his own humanity in the process.

Elsewhere the NT ensemble, of whom Barbara Flynn as Vindice's mother, Elliot Cowan's sexually demented heir to the dukedom and Ken Bone's truly sinister Duke stand out, enact their extremes of vice and virtue at the perfect tragicomic pitch.

A further word of praise for Adrian Sutton's evocative and haunting music which suitably complements this gripping danse macabre of death, revenge and evil.

Continues in repertory until 7th August 2008.

By Laurence Green

Booking Information

Box office: 0207 452 3000 or:

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