The National Theatre’s Olivier stage is set to fulfil our dullest expectations of Jacobean tragedy. Faded squares on the drab brown walls suggest paintings sold to stave off poverty. The only work remaining is Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome, depicting the solitary saint accompanied by just books and a skull.
Then the play opens to crashing drum’n’bass interwoven with folk violin. The Drum Revolve turns and behind the high walls of the pauper’s study we discover a timeslipped world of suited and medallioned playboys grinding with whores in hot-pants on red leather sofas, watched over by classical murals and a bronze statue of the Virgin, while yet more fashionable revellers masturbate and mug each other in the alleyways between sets. Within a minute director Melly Still’s production has yanked the audience as violently and spectacularly up to date as it has The Revenger’s Tragedy itself.
It’s a play that’s historically prone to split personalities. Originally attributed to Tourneur, now to Thomas Middleton; currently running at both the National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange; and, in this incarnation, caught between ages. Jacobean squalor exists parallel with contemporary high-society sleaze. Every designer suit is accessorised with a sword, and high-class, high-heeled prostitutes accompany masked and pantalooned nobles at the revels.
Such an ambitious vision demands some impressive ensemble set-pieces to prove just how successfully realised it is. Thankfully these are frequent, breathtaking and varied in tone, from the climactic sword dance, which marries disco and break to Elizabethan formal dancing, to the subdued, funereal coronation of the new Duke, which complements the courtiers’ grave faces with freezing fog and a plaintive lament.
The performers play a comfortable second fiddle to the production elements. Rory Kinnear’s performance as the titular revenger Vindice probably won’t win him another Olivier award, but it’s certainly cause for discussion. Kinnear’s Piato – the puffa-jacketed pimp persona, adopted by Vindice to facilitate his revenge against the lecherous Duke that poisoned his lover – is an entertaining caricature of a cheeky Eastender, while his Vindice is nothing more than an eloquent thug with delusions of noble purpose. No one could imagine Vindice vindicated after Kinnear’s performance; he’s cavalier with the skull of his beloved, and delights more in the act of bloodshed than in its supposed justification.
An unfortunate side effect of this interpretation is that the Duke’s louche son Lussurioso, played charismatically by Elliot Cowan, seems almost sympathetic by comparison. Lussurioso lusts after virgins, especially Vindice’s chaste and virtuous sister Castiza (a righteously indignant Katherine Manners), but is never seen to molest one on stage, instead sending ‘Piato’ to do the sleazy wooing for him: which in turn makes Vindice all the more detestable.
Kinnear’s Piato and Cowan’s Lussurioso are just two of many excellent comic performances on display, but there’s nothing recognisable as a great tragic performance. In this the play favours its modern persona over the classical. The magnificently unrepentant may be morally reprehensible, but they’re much more entertaining to watch than righteous ’emos’ like Hamlet.