The Olivier space at the National Theatre is blessed with a vast revolving stage which, although used effectively enough, has rarely been used as the central focus of a production's design. Not until now that is. Ti Green and Melly Still's stunning set, a steel structure that pivots around a soaring central Corinthian column, is visually enthralling. Arranged to reveal three vignette-like scenes, this dramatic triptych revolves before our eyes, adding an unusual and disconcerting dynamism to what is already a disturbingly emotive play. Between these three vignettes, brilliantly created by painted gauzes which permit haunting imagery and multiple projection and reflection, tall, narrow, claustrophobic corridors provide access to the central column and thence offstage. Within these corridors, dastardly deeds of murder, spying, and sexual debasement are enacted in semi-gloom, highlighting the corruption of this Italian ducal state.
The play opens powerfully with a royal party. Thumping loud music and flashing lights accompany the fast revolving stage which reveals exotic dancers and acrobats entertaining the immoral courtiers. As the Duke sits in a chair, a young girl fellatios his rigid body, whilst, elsewhere, the Duke's Younger [step-]Son rapes an innocent matron of court. The sexual depravity and shocking imagery is heightened by the crescendo of sound, made piercingly visceral by the counter-tenor singing of Jake Arditti. The Revenger's Tragedy has arrived at the National with a delicious fanfare of lust and blood and death.
Melly Still has not only co-designed the set, but also directs this fascinating production. The seamless combination of style, imagery, and dramatic effect is testament to Still's overall concept. This is a production that really works. Physical and vocal dexterity, and a very modern attitude to the play's humour, guarantee that the characters are clearly defined, the plot easily followed, and the unexpected ending pleasingly absurd without being laughable in its gory conclusion.
The principal dramatic presence, that of the revenging Vindice, is played by Rory Kinnear. Well known for several fine performances at the RSC, Kinnear's easy-going delivery and astute comic timing ensure that Vindice is a well-rounded anti-hero. Although Kinnear's throwaway delivery in the first half seemed less assured, by the second half of the play, his character had achieved that passion and strength which carried the plot to its tragic conclusion.
Vindice's hatred extends not only to the Duke (Ken Bones) who had, some years before, violated Vindice's betrothed and driven her to her death, but also to the aptly-named Lussurioso. Elliot Cowan's Lussurioso, son-and-heir to the ducal throne, appears to glide like a malevolent snake towards Vindice's virgin sister Castiza ('the chaste'). Not only that, but he engages the disguised Vindice to act as sexual go-between on his behalf, a plot twist which allows son to tempt both daughter and mother and finally reveal the sanctity of virginity and the supposed frailty of maternal affection.
Into this mix are thrown the Duke's bustard son Spurio (Billy Carter) who conducts a particularly raunchy affair with his step-mother the Duchess, played with predatory sexuality by Adjoa Andoh. Finally Tom Andrews and John Heffernan as the Duchess's sons Ambitioso and Supervacuo provide the final members of this outrageously dysfunctional and murderously jealous family grouping.
As will be obvious by now, this particular play not only literally revolves, but also metaphorically revolves around the themes of lust, greed, and illicit sexual gratification. Only now, perhaps, can such raunchy behaviour be acceptable on a stage which, not thirty years ago, saw simulated sex acts landing the National in High Court to fight an accusation of performing lewd and immoral acts. In our post-MTV world there seems nothing strange in writhing scantily-clad bodies adding soft-porn delight to a play which wears its morality so openly on its sleeve. At last, we can see these early modern plays for what they were: opportunities to thrill and excite and titivate whilst shrouded in the sheerest veneer of moral didacticism. The National has bravely embraced this rarely-played Jacobean play and, with Melly Still's faultless artistic vision, reinvented Middleton's message for a twenty-first-century audience. Well worth the effort.
Kevin Quarmby © 2008