Ambitiosa and  Supervacuo.

Bethan Mary-James  as Ambitiosa and Michael Keane as Supervacuo.

The Revenger’s Tragedy

Nottingham Playhouse

****

First published in 1607, near the start of James I’s reign, The Revenger’s Tragedy is a classic example of the Revenge genre, which has its roots in the Roman Seneca (whose plays were famously bloody) and to a degree in the great Spanish Tragedians who coincided with and indeed outlived Shakesvindicepeare.

Previously ascribed to the virtually unknown Cyril Tourneur, it has since been attributed, uncertainly but by general consent, to Thomas Middleton.

The principal figure is called Vindice (Latin vindex – ‘avenger’) and in seeking a bitter vengeance for the death of his mistress on the lecherous old Duke, abetted by his brother Hippolyto, by disguising himself and insinuating himself into the service of the Duke’s one legitimate son and heir.

Alexander Campbell as Vindice - the Avenger

The latter’s name, Lussurioso, captures the self-indulgence and preening characteristics of the whole ruling family, which includes a bastard and three conspiratorial stepsons. By various subterfuges Vindice brings about the murder of both ruler and heir, but ultimately his own demise and that of his conniving sibling too.

The Director, Fiona Buffini, finds herself drawn to plays that ’surprise, delight and shock an audience, and make them think about the world they live in’: that applies to Jacobean drama such as The Duchess of Malfi (which she previously directed for Nottingham Playhouse) and this play.

The language too attracted her: ‘Although quite similar to Shakespeare, it felt completely different and very modern.’ The play has a brutal underbelly: ‘Many of the characters believe everything can be bought: they value sex and money. They have no moral compass. They are out for themselves and they like to wear their wealth’ They’re rather grotesque.’

The production has been set nominally in the 1970s (‘but it’s its own universe’), a period she associates with ‘flamboyance and abuse of power.’

So what was the outcome? The answer is, very much a curate’s egg. Neil Murray’s set designs – focused on a series of large-sized awnings descending like massive Mantegnas to represent a palatial setting, or conversely, scenes outside, served strikingly well, though there was nothing 20th century about those.

The costumes, all bright gleaming and glossy silvers and pinks, and indeed grotesquely overstated, seemed to me the start of the problem. Though any pop group might happily preen in them, they turned more or less the whole scenario into some kind of Rolling Stones madhouse. The idea – for this is a madhouse – had merits; but the result – though one’s not saying Jacobean dress is what was needed - was more one of distraction and annoyance. There were some nice comic results: but one couldn’t take theseLussurioso characters seriously. It just didn’t add up.

Jon Nicholls’ Music and Sound design fell into the same category. Great blasts of pop music or its equivalent between scenes felt, sadly, not like the evocation of any period, but like pure self-indulgence. They were presumably intended to ratchet up the feeling of tension and a sense of letting go, or of ‘anything goes’: indeed self-indulgence may have been exactly what he sought to capture or parody. But the feeling was trite. More effective were the subliminal or subterranean touches Nicholls infiltrated periodically beneath the text. There was a sense of gentle haunting here which ratcheted up the nervous atmosphere.

Lussurioso (Declan Perring) in his bath, abetted by Hippolito (Nathan Clarke)

What about the actors? Though often dwarfed by the production, and its attempt to ‘interpret’, they turned in some very presentable performances. Alexander Campbell’s Vindice arguably lacked direction: diminished by starting out in vapid blue jeans, he seemed somewhat lost on a large stage, and lacking in visual invention.

His scenes with his brother (Nathan Clarke) were often pretty static, though Clarke caught the role of loyal supporter quite nicely. Campbell really came into his own in Vindice’s two or three soliloquies, which were delivered with conviction and assurance, even if squeezing Jacobean revenge convincingly into a virtually up to date era was more than could be expected of anyone.

Paul Brightwell’s Duke lacked any real impact. Louche, perhaps, and utterly disloyal to others – these were characteristics he did capture. But roles have to establish themselves in a way that draws an audience in. Much more striking was Tabitha Wady’s Duchess, whose speaking struck me as exemplary and who cut, if not a strong figure on stage, nevertheless an appealing one. Would she had had more to do.

Sadly Mary Jo Randle as the materfamilias of Vindice’s family was left more or less to fend for herself. A feeble presence, given telling words but no personality to establish them. Navinder Bhatti began to make a worthwhile figure of Spurio, the bastard, but sadly is given too few lines to make much of him. John Askew (the younger son, who gets executed) likewise.  

Two characters who really did catch the eye were the ostensible youngsters, Castiza – the sister whose virtue Vindice is forced to pretend to cede to the lustful royal family – and the splendidly named Supervacuo. Every time Isabel Adams – the very young Castiza – opened her mouth there was a quality of diction that outshone nearly everyone else. Her stance, or stances made anduke impression, too. A sixth former now a member of the National Youth Theatre, she clearly has great potential.

Michael Keane’s performance was a delight from start to finish. I could be forgiven for thinking him a schoolboy, but his adult credits are in fact very considerable. Supervacuo, splendidly contrived by Keane, had all the detail and subtle, indeed amusing quirks that made for a memorable character. His power of invention was notable, and reflected a range of reactions and quality of initiative that often brought alive a scene that was in danger of drooping.

Paul Brightwell as the (very) randy Duke

The other lesser character who definitely made a mark was Ambitiosa (Bethan Mary-James). Often paired with Keane in sequences where both were plotting or at least planning, she came across as both determined and forceful, and like Wady her speaking was especially attractive.

Highest credit, however, has to go to the half-crazy performance turned in by Declan Perring as Luxurioso, the Duke’s son and something of a chip off the old block. Poncing around the stage he struck an amusing figure from the start, but in fact he is at the heart of the disastrous developments and ultimately the victim himself of the atmosphere of revenge. The scene where a trapdoor opens front stage and he indulges in an elaborate bath with scrubbing brush was a hoot – oddly, one of the few moments of real invention in Buffini’s production, apart from some crucial cavorting with a skull. But Perring’s speaking was, blessedly, nearly the best among the major characters, and on every entry he caught the attention and held it with great skill.

Not a play of which, in this production, one came away enamoured. More an idle romp, one felt, than a sinister build up of unpleasantness and bloodthirstiness. In Germany, opera productions like this are known as ‘Director’s opera.’ Regrettably it was the idea, lack of memorable moves and overall concept that foundered. As the play pulled one way, the imagery largely distracted. A pity for an undertaking that clearly consumed a great deal of work and effort.

Runs at the Nottingham Playhouse till Saturday 12 November.

Roderic Dunnett

11-16

www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk 

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