Tuesday, August 21, 2012

'The Revenger's Tragedy' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 18th August 2012

This is the second play staged by the Old Red Lion Theatre in their repertory season.  The first was their updating of Shakespeare's Henry V as an analogy for the run-up and events of the War in Iraq.  'The Revenger's Tragedy' is also set in the modern era, taking Thomas Middleton's early C17 tale of greed, sex and psychopathy and placing it squarely and appropriately in the 1980s.

The play takes a refreshingly anti-authoritarian stance for something first performed in 1606.  It tells the tale of a young man, Vindice (Mark Field), on a crusade to avenge the death of his fiancee.  She was poisoned by a nobleman for rejecting his advances, and now Vindice is left with nothing more than her skull, which he totes around Hamletlike at all times.  The Duke's family is astonishingly venal, a motley gang of sinister rapists, drug addicts and illegitimate incestuous bastards.  Everybody seems to have their own agendas, enemies, lovers or potential targets for their lust and rage.  This is a play with a reputation for ultra-violence, and almost as soon as you're introduced to this evil, amoral bunch you're anticipating their hopefully bloody and painful deaths on stage.  

Mark Field as Vindice (in character as Piato)
 As in Henry V, the actors take on multiple roles here and it can become a little confusing as to who is playing who and who wants what, but fortunately a combination of distinctive costuming, clever body language and a fast-moving and twisty plot kept me interested even when I wasn't wholly sure as to who was who.

As soon as you enter the theatre you're dragged into the intense headspace of Vindice.  You take your seats in the middle of an improvised ongoing scene.  Bathed in deep red light that represents a darkroom, but also shows passion and fury we see Vindice pacing about, muttering to himself.  Surrounding him are pictures of the Duke's family. He mutters angrily  to members of the audience as they sit down.  It's a nice way to suck us into Vindice's world of psychic pain right from the get go.

Field ends up playing a nicely delineated 'nested' performance.  For a large portion of the play he's undercover as the lasicivious Piato.  Piato is played deliciously over-the-top, a camp, Eurotrashy metrosexual with a line to any kind of drug and sexual encounter you could hope for.  Advertising a talent like this makes it relatively easy for him to infiltrate the Duke's family and gain the trust of his sons.

Jack Morris as Lussurioso
Of the three, Jack Morris' Lussurioso was my favourite.  He was unpleasantly slimy and lizardlike as the Henry V/Blair parody in Henry V, but here he takes it to a whole other level.  It's rare to see so unpleasant a sneer walk the stage - he radiates contempt for everyone around him, and seems consumed with his base desires.  On some level he almost seems to be channelling a funhouse mirror distortion of Gordon Gekko.  His costume of braces, sock suspenders and big glasses has become cultural shorthand for the 1980s culture of unabashed greed and consumerism.  Lussurioso employs 'Piato' in an attempt to scheme a way to deflower Vindice's virginal sister.  So, in short he's employing the man with a violent vendetta against his family to arrange the prostitution of his own sister.  Like I said, with all the characters playing roles within the narrative, and the actors also playing multiple roles it can be a bit difficult trying to work out who's trying to kill/fuck who.

Nicholas Klime 
The actor with the widest range in this play is definitely Nicholas Kime, who plays an unrepentant, egotistical rapist, an awkward, introverted illegitimate bastard in an incestuous relationship with his mother and Vindice's innocent virginal sister - who's introduced working out to Jane Fonda.  Over the play, and through these roles Kime effortlessly conveys vastly opposing emotions, playing extroverted and introverted at the drop of a hat, and switching between predator and victim in a disconcertingly easy fashion.  These character changes seem to cement the links between these characters, embroiling them all, revenger and victim alike in the same seamy sea.

There is a bit of a barrier in the language and meter used.  When I see Shakespeare, I'm usually familiar enough with the plot and dialogue so I don't have to concentrate too hard on deciphering every line.  In the last year I've been to two Elizabethan/Jacobean plays of which I've known almost nothing about the plot beforehand.  One is this, and the second was 'The Duchess of Malfi' at the Old Vic, another tale of blood and revenge.  It can feel like your brain is working on overtime, both untangling and appreciating the poetry of the language, while also trying to focus on the wider narrative.  Fortunately, the language in 'The Revenger's Tragedy' seemed slightly more naturalistic than other plays I've seen from this period, and was easier to follow with some sequences sounding almost contemporary (although this may well be a credit to the cast).  My favourite bit of dialogue came very early on as Vindice talks about his dead fiancee's skull:
"My study's ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally fill'd out
These ragged imperfections,
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In those unsightly rings: then 'twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman's bought complexion."
This has got obvious Hamlet-y connections, but Field's delivery is spot on, and sells us very quickly on the grief and desire for revenge that consumed Vindice, and manages to sustain this level throughout the play.   As Piato, Vindice makes frequent asides to the audience, showing the strain that the louche, carefree persona is having on him.  This is a play where even the 'good guys' are driven mad with revenge and grief, but Fields keeps our sympathy, even when he's carrying out the imaginatively sadistic and violent death of the duke.

The 1980s aesthetic is conveyed brilliantly, with interludes of Katrina & The Waves and Duran Duran exploiting nostalgic cultural memories.  The primary colours of the lighting also plunge us back into this slightly tasteless time.  At certain places we feel as if we have entered an 80s nightclub.  The free and open use of cocaine, which is generally violently rammed up the character's noses also helps set the debauched tone. 

By the time the body count racks up in the finale we're primed for some blood n' guts.  We've had it demonstrated to us in a myriad of ways why the world would be better off without these people in it.  Director Nicholas Thompson doesn't shirk from his duty here.  The deaths are all memorably frantic and grossly realistic.  By the end we're faced with a stage full of twitching, stabbed corpses.  It's the kind of play where one of the biggest laughs comes when someone callously tosses a severed head onto the floor.  All of this lurid violence feels a little bit campy, those that die are so cartoonishly evil that it's hard to relate to them as realistic people.  It's probably this that keeps it from becoming overly disturbing as the characters work out their homicidal impulses.

I very much enjoyed this.  Violent revenge dramas like this are a good reminder that bloodlust in an audience is by no means a modern phenomenon.  We're used to thinking of Elizabethan/Jacobean plays as a bit antiseptic at times, concerned more with language than action.  Here, when you're watching the sinister and self-centered Lussuriosa breathing his last you can imagine the groundlings salivating and cheering on his bloody demise.  

The elan and style with which this company get through this bloody tale more than compensates for the occasional moment of confusion or distraction that comes from keeping track of the double-crossing, twisty plot.  If you have a choice of seeing this or Henry V, I'd definitely prioritise this one.

The Revenger’s Tragedy is at the Old Red Lion Theatre, Angel (www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk), until September 29.

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