The Southwark Playhouse is gaining a reputation for staging obscure though innovative examples of early modern plays. The situation of the Playhouse, so near to Shakespeare's Globe, must have something to do with this policy. If the packed houses for The Revenger's Tragedy are anything to go by, this is a successful ploy. This exciting, sexy, gory romp through Renaissance Italy is as contemporary in its themes as it is outrageous in its action.
Apparently originally written by Thomas Middleton, a contemporary of Shakespeare's who wrote for the children's company at St Paul's Cathedral, The Revenger's Tragedy is thought to have been first staged by the King's Men at the Globe. If this is so then Shakespeare, as principal sharer, would most likely have vetted this particular play and okayed it for production. It is not hard to see why.
Gavin McAlinden has directed a twenty-two strong cast of actors who joyfully embrace this new version written by Meredith Oakes. Oakes has compressed a wordy narrative into a racy one hundred minutes, packed with every theatrical trick in the Machiavellian book.
The eponymous revenger, Vindici, is played with masterful ennui by Kris Marshall who fleetingly reminds us of Prince Hamlet as he grasps the skull of his dead lover. Will Vindici succeed in wreaking revenge against the corrupt Italian duchy? Will he guard the honour of his virtuous and chaste sister? All is revealed with remarkable clarity and pace.
Vindici is aided in his exploits by his brother, Hippolito. James Howard is the smooth operator Hippolito who invites his brother to become a favourite of court – disguised, of course, the better to vent his spleen. In his disguise, which we have to take pretty much at face value, Vindici ingratiates himself with homoerotic relish with the young prince Lussurioso, an Italian label name which means wanton or lecherous. Patrick Myles is superbly malevolent as the lecher Lussurioso; his attempt to seduce Vindici and Hippolito's sister, Castiza is only foiled by the timely intervention of her brother.
Catherine Murray is Castiza, a role which requires her to display maidenly virtue and then depraved lustfulness all as a means to shame her mother into not accepting a bribe for her daughter's virginity. Linda Marlowe is splendid as Castiza's mother, Gratiana; her repentance at the end of her son's vicious knife thrust menacingly at her throat, is at once believable and pitiful.
Of course, the rest of the court are just as bad, including the duke and duchess and their assorted children. The Seduction of the Duke's bastard son by his latest wife, the Duchess, is violently and surprisingly erotic. The bastard Spurio (Mark Hesketh) is coolness personified as his step-mother playfully bites his crotch. Sheila Ruskin plays the Duchess with all the power and malice of a lioness pouncing upon her prey.
A fine performance by Oliver Kieran-Jones as Junior, the Duchess's youngest son, adds to the sense of manic claustrophobia that so suits the play and the Southwark Playhouse. Vicki Fifield has designed a black and red Italian palace which is crypt-like in its morbidity. This evocative background is perfect for the intrigue and blood that a Jacobean revenge tragedy so obviously requires.
If you want to see a fast-moving and brilliantly acted example of a Jacobean revenge play then The Revenger's Tragedy is certainly for you. The dark and bitter humour, so much a part of Middleton's writing, is deliciously embraced and savoured in this great production. I can't think of a better way to wile away a cold March evening than in the company of these despicably sexy reprobates. A must.
Kevin Quarmby 2006
Production: The Revenger's Tragedy
Playwright: Thomas Middleton, adapted by Meredith Oakes
Dates: 7 - 25 March 2006
Opened: 10 March 2006
Address: 5 Playhouse Court, 62 Southwark Bridge Road, London SE1 0AT
Director: Gavin McAlinden
Designer: Vicki Fifield
Lighting Designer: Paul Colwell
Sound Designer: Matt Downing
Costume Designer: Lara Booth
Music: James Jones
Producer: Doublethink Theatre & Halflight